Monday, May 30, 2011


This cucumber-associated outbreak of food borne illnesses in multiple countries in Europe is really frightening, mainly, because of the virulence of the hemorrhagic E. coli involved. A large percentage of people - around three fourths women - are not just having a few miserable days with diarrhea, but actually developing complications of Haemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) and ending up in the hospital. As of today, at least ten have died. There will be more.

But don't panic. Action is being taken all over Europe to stop the outbreak of illnesses. Everywhere, the culprit food (that is, if it's only the Spanish cucumbers) is being withdrawn from the market - Germany, the Czech Republic, Luxemburg, Hungary and elsewhere. National authorities everywhere in Europe are checking what was imported, where it went, and trying to catch every vegetable before any more people eat them. The public is also being advised not to eat them and restaurants and consumers have been told to throw out any they might have bought.

Restrictions have been imposed on the two suspect Spanish cucumber growers, even before conclusive proof is available that the problem started with them. So, there won't be any more coming in from those sources. In parallel with these activities an investigation is ongoing. Interviews are being done with victims, laboratory testing is being performed on actual vegetables (including others, as well as cucumbers), and every point along the distribution line is being checked and examined for possible failures which could have resulted in contamination.

Assuming we have the right culprit vegetable (and that it's not eggplant or tomatoes or lettuce as well), and assuming that there is no other grower anywhere with the same problem, new illnesses should soon stop occurring since the incubation period for this bacterium is usually less than a week.

But then, there is the problem of secondary illnesses(people becoming ill from someone else - usually a family member - who did eat the food), or other indirect routes, as through swimming pool water (see previous post). Some studies have found around 10% of pathogenic E.coli illnesses to be secondary. But a few case studies I looked at had a higher incidence. Given the rarity of this particular E.coli 0104:H4, we don't really know what will happen.

To your good health!

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