published Saturday, June 4th, 2011

A scary E. coli outbreak

Large-scale outbreaks of E. coli infections still are not common, but they do occur often enough to prompt worry about personal health and the safety of national and international food chains. A deadly eruption of the bacterial infection currently plaguing Germany exacerbates those concerns. It also threatens to undermine vital political and economic relationships in Europe and around the globe.

World health officials say the current outbreak appears to be caused by a strain of E. coli that may be new. New or not, it is scary.

In Germany, for example, about 500 of the nearly 1,800 known victims have potentially deadly kidney complications. Health officials say the outbreak is likely the third largest involving E. coli in recent history. It already is the deadliest. At this writing, at least 18 people had died, surpassing 12 deaths in Japan in 1996 and seven in Canada in 2000. The toll could rise.

Germany’s worrisome toll soared to its current level after officials reported almost 200 new cases of the ailment in the first two days of June. Concern over the outbreak has heightened because there is no specific treatment for E coli. “All we can do,” one physician says, “is wait for the body to heal itself.”

There apparently is no shortcut. Antibiotics don’t help and, in fact, are counterproductive. “If you give antibiotics and the strain is resistant,” said Dr. Phillip Tarr, a Washington University professor, “then you give that bacteria a competitive advantage over other bugs in your gut that are susceptible to the drugs, and so it’s an even better environment for the infection.”

Dr. Buddy Creech of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine concurs. “It seems that antibiotics make the bacteria explode, and the toxins inside get spit out and wreak havoc.” That can’t promote a healthy outcome.

The inability of experts to determine the origin of infection compounds the treatment issue and creates economic uncertainty. Initially, fresh produce from Spain was identified as the source, but subsequent tests failed to confirm that finding. Nevertheless, the alleged connection between Spanish produce and the E. coli outbreak has wrecked Spain’s lucrative produce export business. Sales have dropped precipitously. The situation is likely to worsen.

Worried consumers have all but stopped buying fresh fruit and vegetables from Spain. Some nations — Russia for example — have moved to ban imports of all European produce. If enacted, the impact would be significant. Russia alone imports more than $5 billion in fruits and vegetables yearly.

The economic dislocations related to the infectious outbreak have magnified, in some cases, the sometimes frail political ties within the European Union. Spanish leaders, for example, are incensed that German officials labeled Spain’s produce as suspect before testing — which exonerated it — was complete. The nations’ relationship at present is particularly frosty.

For the moment, it appears that the E. coli outbreak is limited to northern Germany. Most reported cases involve a resident there or someone with a connection to the region. Given that, the current outbreak is unlikely to spread unless there is more than one source of infection. Infectious disease specialists say the ailment rarely passes from person to person and that it can be self-limiting. Indeed, German officials said Friday that the number of new cases seemed to be slowing. Still, there’s reason for concern.

The global food supply — particularly in industrialized nations — generally is safe, though the current E. coli outbreak is proof that there is room for improvement. Consumers can do their part to protect themselves, but they need help. More effective government oversight, improved farming and packing practices and better communication between global agencies are needed to better protect the world’s health and to safeguard its increasingly interconnected food chain.

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