E. coli toll in Europe rises as source stays elusive

The death toll from the E. coli outbreak in Europe rises to 24 and the number of people ill increases to 2,325 in Germany as a WHO expert warns time is running out on finding the source of the problem.

The death toll from the E. coli outbreak in Europe rose to 24 from 22 on Tuesday, and the number of sick people in Germany increased to 2,325 as a World Health Organization expert warned time is running out on finding the source of the problem.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's national disease control centre, says 23 people have died in Germany and one in Sweden.

Ninety-four more people have been infected in Germany in the deadliest E. coli outbreak in modern history. The number of sick in other European countries remained at about 100.

The institute says the latest figures indicate the number of new cases is declining, a sign the epidemic might have reached its peak.

But the institute cautions it is not certain whether the latest decrease will continue in the coming days. The number of sick people suffering from a serious complication that might lead to kidney failure rose by 12 to 642.

The latest figures come as an expert at the World Health Organization said time is running out for German investigators to find the source of the outbreak that began May 2 and has spread fear across Europe and cost farmers millions in exports.

German officials wrongly identified Spanish cucumbers of being the culprit and retracted the allegation last week when the cucumbers were found with a different strain of E. coli.

On Sunday, they blamed German sprouts, only to backtrack a day later when initial tests were negative. The sprouts are still being tested.

"If we don't know the likely culprit in a week's time, we may never know the cause," Dr. Guenael Rodier, director of communicable diseases at WHO, told The Associated Press in an interview.

'The final proof will come from the lab'

He said the contaminated vegetables have likely disappeared from the market, making it difficult for German investigators to link patients with contaminated produce weeks after they became infected.

There are three main reasons why it is so difficult to pin down the source, said Dr. Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital:

  • The long period of time from when people are exposed to when they fall sick enough to go to hospital and get diagnosed.
  • Salads typically include multiple vegetables eaten together, which makes it difficult to determine which vegetable is to blame.
  • No food supplier wants to make anyone sick, but things become political very quickly and keeping lines of communication open across countries is difficult.

"The final proof will come from the lab," Rodier said, "but first you need the epidemiological link to the suspected food."

Germans are interviewing patients about the foods they ate one to two weeks ago.

"If I said to you, 'What did you eat on May the 15th?' you'd be looking at me like 'What?'" McGeer said in an interview with CBC News.

"Generally it's food exposure. And of course, at the time that I'm asking you that question, you're in the hospital and feeling miserable anyway so it can be very difficult to get that kind of history."

All tests negative to date

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says all produce from the European Union has so far tested negative for E. coli.

Despite there being no existing indication that contaminated products have been shipped to Canada, the CFIA is working closely with the health and consumer affairs directorate of the European Union as well as other trading partners to monitor the situation in Germany.

However, the amount of fresh produce imported from European countries is very low, especially during the summer. In total it accounts for less than one per cent of fresh produce in Canada.

Also on Tuesday, the European Union's health chief warned Germany against issuing any more premature and inaccurate conclusions about the source of contaminated food. The comments by John Dalli came only a day after he had defended the German investigators, saying they were under extreme pressure.

EU agriculture ministers are also holding an emergency meeting in Luxembourg amid demands from farmers that they be compensated for the losses caused by the outbreak.

"The market has dropped two-thirds and fruit and vegetables cannot be sold in Europe now," said Sandor Fazekas, the Hungarian farm minister, who chaired the emergency meeting. "This is a situation that has to be resolved now.

"We have to reassure farmers that we are not leaving them alone. These people ended up in this situation through no fault of their own."

The EU's farm chief, Dacian Ciolos, has proposed the equivalent of $219 million US in aid to help producers hit by the crisis. The pledge came after Spain and France rejected his initial offer. Farmers say they are seeing losses of about $611 million a week.

Ciolos said agriculture ministers will consider whether farmers can recoup from EU coffers up to 30 per cent of the cost of vegetables that cannot be sold.

An agreement in principle on aid is expected later Tuesday.

With files from CBC News, The Canadian Press