E Coli & the case of benign cucumbers

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Jun 10 2011, 07:16am hrs
On May 24, German authorities warn of a new killer on the loose; three people were dead and the culprit was suspected to be a well-known name, E Coli. Enterohaemorrhagic E Coli, to be specific. The German government warned that there could be more deaths, as the number of infections were scarily high. This strain of E Coli was especially deadly with symptoms including diarrhea, kidney failure, anemia and often death. The problem with E Coli is that the first symptoms show only a week or so after infection, and the subsequent symptoms, even later than that. So, pinpointing a source is difficult as people dont remember exactly what they ate, and where.

On May 26, the German health authorities identify three cucumbers from Spain as the cause of the disease.

Immediately, the Spanish government takes action, probing two cucumber distributors suspected of exporting the tainted products. In the meanwhile, the European Commission ups the ante, warning people who recently visited Germany to look out for symptoms such as bloody diarrhea. The disease spreads, with cases coming up in Sweden, Denmark, Britain and the Netherlands. On May 27, Spains agriculture minister, Rosa Aguilar, says there is no proof that it is to blame for the infection. But the damage is already done. Austria soon says it has taken Spanish cucumbers off the shelves of many of its stores. Russia follows suit, banning the import of all vegetables from Germany and Spain. The Netherlands and Spains cucumber exports collapse, seriously affecting their farm sectors.

Soon after, with the death toll hitting 16 and the number of infected patients rising dramatically, the German government says it is doubtful about whether the Spanish cucumbers were the source of the outbreak. They did have a strain of E Coli, but it wasnt the killer one. Scientists confirm this, instead point to locally grown beansprouts. Frederic Vincent, a European Commission spokesman for health and consumer policy, defends the initial blame laid on the cucumbers. He says all the circumstantial evidence pointed to them80% of all the ill Germans recalled eating cucumbers, a large amount of Europes cucumbers are grown in Spain, and initial tests found a strain (later found to be benign) of E Coli on Spanish cucumbers.

Soon after, the German government claimed to have pinpointed the exact farm where the new supposed culprits (beansprouts) were grown, 70 km south of Hamburg, the worst affected city. But the very next day, they declare that 23 of 40 samples taken from the farm had tested negative for the virulent strain of E Coli. The rest of the samples have to still be processed, and nothing can be said about the end result because even one sample having the strain will be enough to prove it was the cause.

But, with the death toll at 23 and more than 1,000 people infected, this ruthless killer is yet to be tracked down and apprehended.