Deadly E. coli Outbreak Sweeps Europe, Its Source Still a Mystery

By Valerie Ross | June 1, 2011 3:05 pm

What’s the News: A massive outbreak of E. coli is spreading through Europe, with 17 people dead in the last two weeks and 1,500 people sickened in Germany alone, where the outbreak began. Authorities are still trying to figure out where the outbreak originated and how it can be treated.

What’s Causing It:

  • Scientists have identified the culprit as a strain of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) which, unlike the generally harmless E. coli that live in our gut, releases toxins that damage capillaries in the intestine, leading to bloody diarrhea, gastrointestinal illness, and at times organ damage and even death.
  • The various strains of EHEC are a common cause of food-borne disease, hitching a ride on foods from burgers to spinach. One common strain, O157, sickens 70,000 people in the US each year.  The strain causing this outbreak is an extremely rare subtype called O104:H21, according to German health officials.

Why Is It So Dangerous:

  • What makes this outbreak particularly bad is that large numbers of people—470 so far—have developed a sometimes fatal complication called haemolytic uremic syndrome.
  • A German researcher found that the strain’s DNA contains small sequences from other E. coli strains and from plague bacteria, which may help explain its ferocity—though there’s no way, he emphasizes, that these bacteria could cause any form of plague.

Where’s It Coming From:

  • No one’s sure. German officials initially pointed to cucumbers from Spain as the likely source of the outbreak, but conceded yesterday that they had misplaced the blame, after tests found the cucumbers weren’t carrying the strain. (Spain, whose agriculture sector has been hit hard as many nations have banned or limited imports of Spanish produce, is considering legal action against Germany for impugning its veggies.)
  • With the cucumbers cleared, health officials don’t know what exactly the source of the outbreak is. Other types of produce are often implicated in food-borne disease outbreaks, so fruits and vegetables are still under scrutiny.
  • E. coli is often spread when food, meat or water come into contact with cattle feces, but it’s unclear whether this rare strain is transmitted the same way as more common ones. Wildlife feces or dirty factory equipment could also be transmitting the bacteria.

Who’s Getting Sick:

What’s the Treatment:

  • When people develop HUS, they are typically given infusions of donor plasma to help get rid of the bacteria’s toxins. (Antibiotics aren’t used to treat EHEC because they can release a flood of the toxins, making things worse rather than better.)
  • Shortly before the outbreak in Germany began, the New England Journal of Medicine accepted a paper on a new treatment for HUS caused by EHEC: using eculizumab, a drug used to treat a rare blood disorder. Three HUS patients, the researchers reported, were successfully treated with the drug.
  • Some doctors in Germany are now using the drug to treat a few patients with severe HUS from the current outbreak. Very little is known about how well the drug works or what other effects it might have, and it’s extremely expensive, costing €15,000 ($22,000) per patient. Doctors are using it only in cases where the regular treatments such as donor plasma haven’t worked.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Mattosaurus

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • Bee

    There’s good information on the website of the Robert-Koch Institut, though mostly in German. (Google translate will help.)

  • bitemark

    *Madagascar closes its ports

  • Andrei Ștefănucă

    Here is some information that might help:
    “Escherichia coli O157:H7 ATCC 43895, E. coli O104:H21 MPHL 94–56815, Salmonella enteritidis ATCC 13076, Listeria monocytogenes Scott A and L. monocytogenes ATCC 19115 were obtained from the University of Idaho Department of Food Science and Toxicology culture collection. All cultures were maintained on trypticase soy agar (TSA) slants and transferred each month to maintain viability. Working cultures were obtained by inoculating a loopful of culture into 10 ml tryptic soy broth (TSB) and incubating at the optimal temperature for each strain for 18–24 h.”
    Lactoferrin in combination with monolaurin inhibited growth of E. coli O157:H7 but not E. coli O104:H21. While lactoferrin combined with nisin or monolaurin did not completely inhibit growth of the gram-negative bacteria, there was some growth inhibition.

    also, wkipedia says: “In April 2009, a Michigan State University researcher announced he had developed a working vaccine for a strain of E. coli. Mahdi Saeed, professor of epidemiology and infectious disease in MSU’s colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Human Medicine, has applied for a patent for his discovery and has made contact with pharmaceutical companies for commercial production” I don’t know what strain but someone might want to call him. (

  • begem0t

    And another little update: they’ve identified the serotype as O104:H4, not H21 as previously announced,templateId=raw,property=publicationFile.pdf/EHEC_O104_H4.pdf

    Its genome is sequenced now and there is an assembly publically available

  • paul

    heard it was sprouts

  • Vogie
  • Georg

    Today they said that 3 employees in that bio sprout farm were ill with some diarrhoe,
    one at least with EHEC. Here we are :=(

  • Georg

    Today more direct evidence came in news about that bio sprout farm: Its now almost shure that the EHEC spread from there. Investigation now concentrates on the question how (from where) this bacterium (known since at lest 10 years) came to the farm.

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