WHO: Time running out to solve E. coli outbreak

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LONDON (AP) — An expert at the World Health Organization said Tuesday that time is running out for German investigators to find the source of the world’s deadliest E. coli outbreak, which has spread fear across Europe and cost farmers millions in exports.

German officials still are seeking the cause of the outbreak weeks after it began May 2. In the last week, they wrongly have accused Spanish cucumbers and then German sprouts of sparking the crisis, which has killed 22 people and infected more than 2,400.

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

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

“Right now, (Germans) are interviewing people about foods they ate about a month ago,” he said. “It’s very hard to know how accurate that information is.”

Without more details about what exact foods link sick patients, Dr. Rodier said, it would be very difficult to narrow down the cause.

“The final proof will come from the lab,” he said, “but first you need the epidemiological link to the suspected food.”

Other experts issued harsher criticism of the German investigation and wondered why it was taking so long to identify the source.

“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.

Mr. 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.

The medical director of Berlin’s Charite Hospitals, Dr. Ulrich Frei, said it took the national disease control center weeks to send his hospital questionnaires for E. coli patients to fill out about their eating habits.

Mr. Osterholm said that the Germans should have been able to trace cases of illness to infected produce by now and that tests on current produce won’t be helpful.

“It’s like looking at camera footage of a traffic intersection today to see what caused an accident three weeks ago,” he said.

“This is an outbreak response that is not being led by the data,” he added. “Solving an outbreak like this is difficult, but it’s not an impossible task.”

On Tuesday, European Union health chief John Dalli warned Germany against premature — and inaccurate — conclusions on the source of contaminated food. Mr. Dalli’s comments came only a day after he had defended the German investigators, saying they were under extreme pressure.

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