- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 7, 2011

LONDON (AP) - Health experts say time is running out for German investigators to find the source of the world’s deadliest E. coli outbreak, and some have been surprised _ even shocked _ at lapses in the German investigation.

German health officials are still looking for the cause of the outbreak that began May 2. So far, the super-toxic strain of E. coli has killed 24 people, infected over 2,400 and left hundreds hospitalized with a serious complication that can lead to kidney failure. New cases are still being reported every day _ 94 more in Germany on Tuesday.

“If we don’t know the likely culprit in a week’s time, we may never know the cause,” Dr. Guenael Rodier, the director of communicable diseases at the World Health Organization, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.

Experts say the outbreak could have been spotted sooner with better medical detection and immediate interviews with patients about what they ate.

German officials accused Spanish cucumbers of being the culprit last week but had to retract when the cucumbers had a different strain of E. coli. On Sunday, they blamed German sprouts, only to backtrack a day later when initial tests were negative.

Rodier said the contaminated vegetables have probably disappeared from the market and it would be difficult for German investigators to link patients to contaminated produce weeks after they first became infected.

Other experts were even more critical of the German investigation.

“If you gave us 200 cases and 5 days, we should be able to solve this outbreak,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, whose team has contained numerous food-borne outbreaks in the United States.

Osterholm described the German effort as “erratic” and “a disaster” and said officials should have done more detailed patient interviews as soon as the epidemic began. He also disputed the idea it might be impossible to find the outbreak’s source.

“To say we may never solve this is just an excuse for an ongoing bad investigation,” he said. “This is like a cold murder case where you go back and re-examine the evidence.”

Even German lawmakers have slammed the government’s chaotic response to the outbreak, criticizing the confusing announcements and retractions.

Christine Clauss, Saxony’s state health minister and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own governing party, said states were initially conducting their own investigations into the outbreak.

“It would be especially important to cooperate more closely and in a more centralized way in situations with a nationwide germ,” she told the daily newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung.

Karl Lauterbach, a doctor who serves as the health expert for the opposition Social Democrats, has repeatedly urged the government to set up a national crisis team to counter the lack of coordination and the leadership vacuum among the federal and state authorities responding to the crisis.

Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia in England, said German investigators could have picked up the outbreak sooner if doctors regularly did lab tests on patients with diarrhea _ a standard practice in Britain.

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