Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rare Germ Drives Outbreak

The bacteria that have left 18 dead, sickened hundreds and sparked economic and diplomatic disruptions across Europe are a lethal strain of Escherichia coli that has never been responsible for a human outbreak, health officials said Thursday.

The outbreak is the deadliest in modern history to involve E. coli, and among the top three in terms of the number of people ill. The strain behind the outbreak could have formed from a genetic recombination of two different E. coli bacteria, producing an unusually virulent bug, the World Health Organization said Thursday, citing preliminary genetic sequencing data.

The World Health Organization said Thursday that the E. coli bacteria responsible for an outbreak that has left 18 dead in Europe is a lethal strain that has never been detected as a human disease. Timothy Martin has details.

Infections Often Tied to Food

According to WHO, of more than 1,600 people sickened by this E. coli strain, 499 developed a rare and potentially fatal kidney-failure complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome—a complication that can shut down the kidneys and normally occurs in only a small percentage of people sickened during an E. coli outbreak. It is also unusual in that most of those affected are young adults—and mostly women. E. coli infections normally hit young children and the elderly hardest.

"I've never seen this array of virulence and antibiotic resistance. It's a very unique combination," Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said of the strain. But he cautioned that it isn't clear what proportion of people really are developing the severe kidney complication, know as HUS, because it is still unknown how many are actually sick. Some may have milder symptoms and haven't visited a doctor. "We clearly need more information on how many other people got sick," he said.

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