Food poison labs cut as death toll rises

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The Independent Online
As an elderly man yesterday became the eighth victim of the E.coli food poisoning epidemic in Scotland, doctors warned of a crisis in the public laboratories set up to monitor such outbreaks.

Laboratories have been closed down in Bath, Wolverhampton, and Guildford, and several others, including the highly respected lab at St George's Hospital, south London, face imminent closure.

Dr Harvey Gordon, a consultant in communicable disease control, said the Public Health Laboratory Service, part of the Department of Health, was being "decimated" by cuts and re-organisation.

He said: "The less laboratories in the country, the less surveillance of communicable diseases and the greater likelihood that something will get out of hand before appropriate investigations have taken place."

The PHLS is carrying out a nationwide investigation into the prevalence of the highly virulent E.coli 0157 bacterium, which is being found in an increasing number of food products including meats, milk and apple juice. The outbreak in Lanarkshire has left 290 people reporting symptoms. Nine new suspected cases emerged yesterday, though the number of confirmed cases remains at 128.

The latest victim, who came from Bonnybridge, but who is not being named, died in Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary. A spokeswoman for Forth Valley Health Board said: "Sadly, this death came very unexpectedly. The patient had been recovering from his E.coli infection and was making good progress. He was due to leave hospital this morning."

The health board spokeswoman said 13 victims were still in hospital, 11 of them in Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary. The condition of three of the patients is described as "poor".

A further 30 people are being treated at Monklands Hospital, Airdrie, where 16 patients are giving "cause for concern".

The spread of E.coli 0157 has so alarmed government scientists that new guidelines are being drawn up to put the bacterium on the same danger level as typhoid. Scientists working in public health laboratories had previously treated it the same as other food poisons.

In the last few months, however, three laboratory workers have been struck down after testing swabs for bugs.

The Health and Safety Executive is now preparing new guidelines for workers to treat E.coli as highly contagious. They will be required to take greater care in handling the bacterium, including wearing masks and working in an enclosed environment. An HSE spokesman said: "E.coli seems to be caught very easily and has very severe side-effects and a high mortality rate."

The PHLS said recent changes in its structure had placed laboratories within regional groupings which enabled all of them to have access to specialist techniques which they otherwise would not have had. A spokeswoman said: "Like many public-sector organisations we have seen successive reductions in our funding and have been required to make efficiency savings. But the strategic review has led to distinct benefits."