E.coli outbreak traced to German restaurant

German scientists are looking for clues about the source of the killer E.coli food bug in a restaurant in the northern German town of Luebeck after 17 people fell ill after eating there, a newspaper reported today.

The 17 people who fell sick from the E.coli bacteria included a group of German tax officials and tourists from nearby Denmark, the Luebecker Nachrichten newspaper said.

"The restaurant is not to blame," said Werner Solbach, a microbiologist at University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein. "However, the supply chain could give us important clues about how the pathogen was passed along."

So far authorities in Germany have yet to pin down the source of the bacteria, which has killed at least 19 people in Europe and made more than 1,700 ill in 12 countries - all of whom had been travelling in northern Germany.

A German woman, one of the tax officials at the Luebeck restaurant, died after contracting E. coli. Many who contracted E.coli have developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly complication that can affect the kidneys.

The group of German tax officials, who were attending a tax union event, ate at the restaurant on May 13, the union head told Reuters today. The Luebecker Nachrichten newspaper said all victims ate there between May 12 and May 14.

German news magazine Focus reported that officials are pursuing a theory in which the outbreak started at the beginning of May in Hamburg as people started becoming ill after a week, consistent with E.coli's incubation period.

The food contamination is believed to have been caused by poor hygiene at a farm, in transit, a shop or food outlet.

Health authorities have repeated warnings to avoid some raw vegetables in northern Germany - rattling farmers and stores in the high season for salad - and said 199 new cases of the rare strain of the bacteria had been reported in the past two days.

European health institutes have tried to reassure the public that the spread of E.coli, a frequent cause of food poisoning, can be contained by washing vegetables and hands before eating.

Efforts to identify the source of the outbreak have been complicated by the fact that salads include a variety of ingredients from different producers and often different countries.

Germany is at the centre of the outbreak but people have also become ill in 10 other European countries and the United States, probably from eating lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers or other raw salad vegetables in Germany.

The World Health Organisation said the strain was a rare one, seen in humans before, but never in this kind of outbreak.

People have also become ill in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and United States.

E.coli bacteria themselves are harmless but the strain making people sick has the ability to stick to intestinal walls where it pumps out toxins, sometimes causing severe bloody diarrhoea and kidney problems.

Many patients have gone into hospital, with several needing intensive care, including dialysis due to kidney complications.

A German government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel had set up an E.coli task force and spoke to Spain's Jose Luis Rodriguez-Zapatero about the impact on farmers there, who were initially blamed for exporting contaminated cucumbers.

The outbreak has put strains on trade relations. Spain is considering a compensation claim from Germany, which had to back down from its assertion blaming tainted Spanish cucumbers.

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