In a virulent outbreak of E. coli that gripped Germany this spring, 36 people were killed and more than 3,000 were sickened in what is being called the largest occurrence of the infection ever seen in Europe.
Health experts at the European Center for Disease Prevention were reportedly shocked at the number of cases in the outbreak.
E. coli is among the most common types of harmful bacteria that causes food poisoning and can be found in fruits and vegetables as well as raw milk and contaminated water. Symptoms of its presence can include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. A dangerous complication, particularly in children, is hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is characterized by hemolytic anemia (low red blood cell count), thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) and renal failure (kidney damage). HUS, in its most severe form, can affect the central nervous system.
The strain of E. coli bacteria found in Germany was particularly deadly due to its ability to rapidly proliferate and spread within the intestine, cause persistent diarrhea and produce a lethal toxin that targeted the kidneys, leading to neurological damage, organ failure and death.
Normally fewer than 10 percent of these food poisoning cases in a given outbreak will develop the most severe symptoms. In Germany, 30 percent of patients developed the worst and deadliest symptoms.
Of the 3,000 people sickened with E. coli, more than 700 of them suffered complications. And in addition to the German deaths, a fatality was reported in Sweden.
Contamination could have happened anywhere “from farm to fork,” European health officials announced at the beginning of the outbreak. German authorities first blamed the epidemic on cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce imported from Spain and warned consumers to avoid those products. Conflicting information led to mass alarm across Europe and threw the continent’s agriculture into disarray. Experts finally identified a crop of organic bean sprouts growing on a farm near Hamburg as the source of contamination.
Spanish farmers demanded compensation when sales of their crops plummeted. The Spanish government said it was considering a lawsuit against authorities in Hamburg for wrongly blaming its produce. Farmers in Germany and other European countries said the market for cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes was so poor that they were forced to dump tons of unsold produce.
Red meat, especially undercooked ground beef, is the most well-known source of toxic E. coli infections in humans but thoroughly cooking meat will destroy the bacteria. People can also protect themselves from this type of food poisoning by scrupulously washing raw fruit and vegetables in chlorinated water, and avoid swimming in waterways that might be contaminated by agricultural run-off.
While stomach upsets, vomiting and diarrhea are common symptoms of E. coli infection, bloody diarrhea suggests that the infection is a severe case that may develop into HUS.
According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the rate of E. coli infection in the United States has been on the decline in the past 15 years. But, as pathogenic E. coli continues to mutate, outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world.
Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder attorney Kathleen Nastri has successfully resolved cases involving e-coli infections.