Rare Form Of E. Coli To Blame For Outbreak

The E. coli story is boiling up, with the CDC saying the outbreak is being caused by a rare strain of the bacteria. The Russians have seized on it as an opportunity for some nationalist chest-thumping, imposing a complete ban on European Union raw vegetables The Germans admit they have no idea of the source. At least 18 people are dead.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with the E. Coli outbreak that has much of Europe on edge. Scientists have begun to study the bacterium behind the outbreak and they say it's both rare and aggressive. So far, 18 people have died, almost all in Germany, and many hundreds more have been hospitalized.

NORRIS: In a moment, we'll hear about how the specific strain of E. Coli wreaks havoc inside the body and how it's being treated. But first, NPR's Philip Reeves reports on efforts in Europe to find the source of the bacterium.

PHILIP REEVES: Researchers have the germ under the microscope. It's not a pretty site. The World Health Organization said earlier today it's a new strain of the sometimes deadly bacterium, E. Coli. But health authorities in the U.S. and Britain had a closer look and say they've actually seen it before, but only in isolated cases. One thing's certain, this is the first time this vicious strain of E. Coli has been associated with a major outbreak.

Professor Hugh Pennington is a microbiologist at Aberdeen University in Scotland.

Professor HUGH PENNINGTON (Aberdeen University): It certainly is as nasty as any of these particular kinds of E. Coli that we've seen in the past.

REEVES: More than 1,600 people are infected so far. The great majority of these are in Germany, although there are cases in at least 10 European countries and two suspected cases in the U.S. spread there by recent travelers to Germany.

Dr. DILYS MORGAN (Health Protection Agency): We would advise anyone who has been to Germany and has symptoms and that's of bloody diarrhea or other things that they may be concerned about - if they have been to Germany, they should seek urgent medical attention.

REEVES: That's Dr. Dilys Morgan from the Health Protection Agency in Britain, which has seven cases. Health authorities in Europe are urgently trying to track down source of the outbreak. The Germans initially blamed cucumbers from Spain, but changed their minds. They now just say there's a strong link to salad vegetables. That's all they know. The source could be anywhere in the production chain, from the farm to the fork.

Professor Pennington says finding the source is critical.

Professor PENNINGTON: If one can pinpoint the source, one can then do something about it and be absolutely certain that that source has now been stopped. And, of course, that's a problem for the Germans. They haven't been able to do that.

REEVES: The bug's also poisoning diplomacy. The Spanish are angry with the Germans for falsely accusing their cucumbers. They say this is cost them dearly in lost business and they're demanding compensation.

Alvaro Torres(sp) has a vegetable store in Madrid. He says shoppers have stopped buying cucumbers.

(Soundbite of high-pitched whistles)

REEVES: A couple of hundred miles to the east in Valencia, farmers dumped a big pile of fruit and veg on the doorstep of the German Consulate as a protest. Relations between the European Union and Russian are also taking a hit. The EU exports hundreds of millions of dollars worth of vegetables to Russia every year. The Russians are now blocking this trade until the source of the outbreak's found.

Frederic Vincent, health spokesman for the European Commission, says they're overreacting.

Mr. FREDERIC VINCENT (European Commission): We don't think it's the right move. We think this is disproportionate. And we have a safety system in the EU, which is working, we have but we do have a health (unintelligible) at the moment in Germany, but we're dealing with it.

REEVES: The European Commission's protested to the Russians, demanding they drop the ban immediately.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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