World Health officials are struggling to find the source of a deadly E. coli strand that has made ill over 1,600 residents of Germany, killed 15 and caused kidney failure in over 400 people. Residents of ten European countries have been affected, but most of the illnesses have occurred in Germany or in people who have recently traveled to Germany.
Illnesses can occur days after tainted food is eaten and leftovers thrown out, so “the trail gets cold pretty quick,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food poisoning cases.
“They might never find the cause of the outbreak,” said Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at England’s University of East Anglia. “In most foodborne outbreaks, we don’t know definitively where the contaminated food came from.”
Nearly all cases are linked to northern Germany, “so it seems to be a common exposure there. But we don’t yet know what was this exposure,” said Kruse, the World Health Organization’s food safety program manager for Europe.
“It’s like a puzzle. But unfortunately the puzzle is not complete.”
Where the dangerous germ came from is just one of the questions health officials have. Another is why patients are suffering from life-threatening kidney complications in an unusually high percentage of cases. It might mean the strain is particularly virulent, but it’s also possible that thousands of less serious cases of food poisoning have gone unreported.
People with less severe symptoms may contact health authorities later, or not at all, Kruse said.
Kruse also said the outbreak is “different in that it mainly affects adults and predominantly women.” Some experts say that likely has to do with diet — women tend to eat more fresh produce. [Source]
This is the largest E. coli outbreak worldwide. You can find complete and detailed information on the outbreak on the World Health Organization website.
While the source of the outbreak is unknown, it’s safer to avoid uncooked fruit and vegetables when traveling internationally. If you purchase food from a grocer or market, make sure to wash the produce thoroughly.