- - Sunday, June 5, 2011

BERLIN — Across northern Germany, vegetables lie in untouched heaps in stores and markets. Hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, and medical investigators continue to hunt for the source of the deadly epidemic caused by an aggressive strain of E. coli bacteria, the worst outbreak in recent history.

An agriculture official in Hanover announced late Sunday that initial tests confirmed that bean sprouts grown in northern Germany are the likely cause of the outbreak that has killed at least 22 people and sickened more than 2,000.

Different kinds of sprouts from one organic farm in the greater Uelzen area, between the cities of Hamburg and Hanover, could be traced to infections in five German states, Lower Saxony Agriculture Minister Gert Lindemann told reporters.

“There were more and more indications in the last few hours that put the focus on this farm,” he said at a news conference.

The outbreak began in northern Germany in mid-May with the first casualty reported on May 21. It has since spread to 12 countries.

At least 2,000 people have fallen ill with E. coli poisoning in Germany, and 627 of them have developed a life-threatening complication that can cause kidney failure.

Almost 100 additional cases of this type of E. coli poisoning have been reported in 11 other European countries and in the United States, where four people are infected. The only fatality outside Germany thus far was in Sweden. In that case and most others, the victims had recently visited northern Germany.

It is the third outbreak and the deadliest one involving E. coli in recent years, authorities said. A 1996 Japanese outbreak killed 12, and one in Canada in 2000 killed seven.

The epicenter of the outbreak has been the port city of Hamburg, which has reported more than 600 E. coli infections.

“Hospitals in the city are reaching the limits of their capacity,” said city government spokesman Christoph Holstein, adding that they may not be able to cope if the situation gets much worse.

Hamburgs Eppendorf University Clinic alone has admitted more than 100 E. coli patients in the past three weeks, and treatment is constantly being adapted.

“The doctors are learning almost by the hour,” said Christine Jaehn, a spokeswoman for the hospital.

She explained that, although 13 patients have been released, many of those who survive the infection may never completely recover full kidney function.

Across the northern part of the country, grocery stores threw out spoiling vegetables, and market vendors said they were losing thousands of dollars from the outbreak.

At cafes and restaurants in the region, waiters and managers said people were shunning salads and raw vegetables. Others put up signs announcing “safe” produce. Some just created alternatives.

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