Kiwi travellers warned over German E. coli outbreak

Last updated 22:09 02/06/2011
Cucumbers displayed for sale between other vegetables outside a supermarket in Berlin.
KILLER FOOD?: Cucumbers displayed for sale between other vegetables outside a supermarket in Berlin.

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Foreign Affairs officials are warning New Zealand travellers about an outbreak in Germany of a serious complication of some strains of E. coli infections, which has killed 17 people.

Most E. coli bacteria are relatively harmless, but the latest strain is a complication of a particular type which produces toxins that damage blood cells and can cause kidney failure.

"The outbreak is centred in northern Germany but cases have been reported across the country," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs SafeTravel website said.

Additional cases have been reported outside Germany but in most of these the affected people had recently visited Germany.

The warning was prompted by the Ministry of Health, which said today new research was being started at Massey University into the pathways for infection for the toxin-producing E. coli infection in this country - long though to be spread to humans from animal waste.

Authorities have been unable to identify the source of the virulent strain in the German outbreak, though people had been warned against eating cucumbers, raw tomatoes and lettuce, especially in the north of the country.

The recommendation would continue until new evidence about the outbreak was available, MFAT said.

Initially, imported Spanish cucumbers were blamed but authorities have since said the E. coli strain found on the cucumbers did not match the killer bacteria. Spanish farmers have complained that lost sales are costing them $NZ350 million a week and that crisis could put 70,000 people out of work .

The strain of infection suspected in the outbreak has not yet shown up in New Zealand, Ministry of Health chief adviser Dr John Holmes, told NZPA.

He noted that separately, there had been increasing numbers of infections in New Zealand - from other strains of E. coli bacteria.

Public health surveillance figures released yesterday by the Environmental Science and Research institute showed 69 notifications in the March quarter, up from 42 in the same period last year. The incidence was equivalent to 3.8 cases per 100,000 population, up from a rate of 2.7 cases in 2010. In 1998, the national rate was 1.3 cases per 100,000 people.

Dr Holmes said Massey University researchers were about to begin a year-long study of cases in humans and the extent to which farm animals were spreading the illness.

"It comes from animals and (the study) is looking at how animals are carrying it and humans are getting it," he said.

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Massey researchers would use DNA to identify the bacteria in livestock and compare those with the bacteria in humans.


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