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But a large minority _ about one-third _ developed serious complications. Though the diarrhea calmed, many started collecting fluid _ as much as 15 kilograms (33 pounds) _ in their stomachs, legs and lungs, Hagenmueller said.

Others suffered epileptic seizures and neurological problems that robbed them of their speech. Liver problems have also been reported among the E. coli patients treated at the hospital. In the most serious cases, patients are exposed to a life-threatening attack on kidney function.

“Uncomplicated to complicated happens very quickly,” Hagenmueller said. “Over the last three weeks each and every day there has been some surprise for us.”

Doctors have often tried experimental therapies during outbreaks including SARS and Ebola when there were no good alternatives. In Hong Kong and Canada, doctors initially thought SARS patients were responding to a new drug regimen, but as they rolled it out in more patients, they found the treatment was toxic and in fact weakened patients’ immune systems.

About two weeks ago, Hagenmueller decided to try antibiotics on Nicoletta Pabst, a 41-year-old homemaker, who was admitted with a severe case.

Pabst said she was willing to try anything.

“He explained everything to me and I was ready to try it out, anything to make me feel better again would have been right at the time,” she said. “I was so sick.”

Hagenmueller said there was only “weak scientific evidence” to support the theory that antibiotics could cause the bacteria to release more toxins in the body.

“Nicoletta Pabst did fantastically and she was a very serious case,” he said. “She did so well that she went home in a week.”

Last week, the hospital adopted antibiotics as its regular treatment for all new serious cases. A total of six Asklepios patients have been treated with antibiotics since the outbreak started.

“We’ve had five from last Friday and they are all progressing well, so I’m feeling a little optimistic, though the number five is too small to mean anything,” Hagenmueller said.

Pabst said she was just grateful doctors are trying whatever they can to fight the outbreak.

“I think the key to my quick recovery was not only the antibiotics treatment but also that he gave it to me in a very early stage of the illness,” she said. “And who knows, maybe that even prevented my getting HUS.”


Grieshaber reported from Berlin. AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.