Tuesday, May 31, 2011


There have now been 16 confirmed deaths from pathogenic E.coli 0104:H4 bacteria in food in Europe - probably raw contaminated organic cucumbers that were imported from Spain. We are still not 100% positive. The number of illnesses is reported to be around 1,200.

But remember two things. First, there is always a time delay in reporting of food borne illnesses, so, while an outbreak is still ongoing, they are always a bit behind the actual numbers. Secondly, only a fraction of food borne illnesses are actually ever reported. Some people, who have a milder case - and they do exist, even in this outbreak, may never go to a doctor or a hospital, and never enter the reporting system. Let's assume the number is actually double, triple - or even more.

It looks to me as though about a quarter to a third of the cases of this illness are resulting in complications of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is very serious and can be fatal when the kidneys are badly affected. If true, that is a very high incidence - much higher than usual with outbreaks of the more common E.coli 0157:H7 (closer to 10%). In other words, this is a very, very virulent bacteria.

As mentioned, the definitive cause of the illness is still largely unknown, although stories and rumors are flying. It has also become a political battleground, with every country that is accused - not just Spain, but also the Netherlands and Denmark, loudly denying any guilt, issuing threats and demanding apologies.

What we do know is that this is one of the deadliest food borne outbreaks that has ever occurred. Quoting Dr. Robert Tauxe, Deputy Director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC): "There has not been such an outbreak before that we know of in the history of public health."

Please be careful. If you live in Europe, follow government advice and avoid raw cucumbers for a while - and raw tomatoes and lettuce as well. Don't even use raw cucumber slices on your eyes or your sunburn!

To your good health!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would think it's reasonably safe, or at least safer, to peel the cucumber. a greaty pity, the humble cucumber is such a wonderful summer vegetable.