German E.coli strain “super-toxic”, say scientists

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 6th June 2011

Scientists have said that the E.coli serotype that has caused a series of deaths and thousands of illnesses across Europe is a new “super-toxic” E.coli strain resistant to antibiotic treatment.The Beijing Genomics Institute said last week that the O104 E.coli strain has not been involved in any previous E.coli outbreaks and that it has several antibiotic resistance genes, making antibiotic treatment difficult.

Meanwhile, a study by the Institute of Hygiene at the University Hospital Munster also found that the O104 serotype was resistant to antibiotics, as well as having a stronger cytotoxic effect on kidney cells and a strong attachment to cells on the intestinal wall.

However, the Institute has been quick to play down claims that the strain has “never been seen before”.

Professor Helge Karch, the Institute’s director, said that its studies have confirmed the E.coli strain is a hybrid clone that “combines the virulence of different pathogens”. Reports describing it is an entirely new type are “not right”, Prof. Karch added.

According to the latest numbers released by the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, 17 people have died in the country as a result of the outbreak, while some 1,733 people in the country have become ill. One person in Sweden has also died.

The WHO has reported that there have been cases of illness in nine European countries from the Czech Republic to the UK. The first cases have also been reported in the US with two people falling ill.

The WHO said yesterday that all but two of the cases were in people who reside in or had recently visited northern Germany during the incubation period for the infection. In one case, the person had been in contact with a visitor from northern Germany.

The source of the outbreak remains unknown, but was previously suspected to be cucumbers which had been imported into Germany from Spain. Despite original claims by Germany that the cucumbers were carrying the STEC E.coli strain, the European Commission found that they were not carrying the O104 serotype that has been responsible for the outbreak.

The Spanish government is now calling for compensation from Germany after the accusations meant exports of fruit and vegetables from Spain effectively came to a halt until the link to the cucumbers had been ruled out.

As a result of the outbreak, Russia has banned the import and sale of all vegetables from the European Union.

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