- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

BERLIN (AP) — Two new deaths linked to a mysterious bacterial outbreak in Europe blamed on tainted vegetables were reported Tuesday, including the first outside Germany, as the number of reported cases continued to rise.

The deaths brought to 16 the total number of fatalities linked to the E. coli outbreak, with northwestern Germany the hardest-hit region.

Hospital officials in Boras, Sweden, announced the death of woman in her 50s who was admitted May 29 after a trip to Germany. In Paderborn, Germany, the local council said an 87-year-old woman who also suffered from other ailments had died.

In Germany, the national disease control center said 373 people were sick with the most serious form of the outbreak — hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a rare complication arising from an infection most commonly associated with E. coli. That figure was up from the 329 reported Monday.

Susanne Glasmacher, a spokeswoman for the Robert Koch Institute, said another 796 people have been affected by the enterohaemorrhagic E. coli, also known as EHEC, bacteria — making a total of more than 1,150 people infected.

Hundreds of people also have been sickened in other European countries, but until Tuesday, Germany had seen the only deaths.

The same strain of E. coli now in Europe hit the U.S. state of Montana in 1994, leaving 11 people sick, including four who were hospitalized. A year earlier, a related strain of E. coli killed four children in the western United States and sickened about 500 people after they ate contaminated hamburgers at the Jack in the Box fast-food chain. Unlike those limited outbreaks, however, the European one is much larger and deadlier and predominantly is striking adults.

In Sweden, hospital medical chief Jerker Isacson said Tuesday that the Swedish woman who died had been ill for a few days before she arrived at the hospital on Sunday and died early Tuesday.

“She developed serious complications, among other things, on the kidneys,” he said.

The Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control on Monday said 39 Swedes have been infected with EHEC so far, including 15 with the severe HUS.

Britt Akerlind, spokeswoman at the institute, said it is unclear why so many Swedes had been infected, but she said it could be that efficient reporting mechanism in the Nordic country means more cases have been discovered here.

Other cases have been reported in Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment still is warning consumers to avoid all cucumbers, lettuces and raw tomatoes as the outbreak is investigated. Although the number of officially reported cases has shot up since late last week, regional officials have said this week that they are seeing a sharp drop-off in the number of new cases.

European Union officials have said that German authorities identified cucumbers from the Spanish regions of Almeria and Malaga as possible sources of contamination and that a third suspect batch, originating either in the Netherlands or in Denmark and traded in Germany, also is under investigation.

They also have noted, however, that the transport chain is long, and the cucumbers from Spain could have been contaminated at any point along the route.

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