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Germany

E. Coli Outbreak. From Produce Markets And McDonald's To Local Hospitals, Germany Asks: What Now?

The desperate search to find the source of what is a particularly virulent new strain of the bacteria has begun again from square one, and a sense of panic is beginning to spread.

A file photo of a produce market in Freiburg, Germany (Lendog)
A file photo of a produce market in Freiburg, Germany (Lendog)
By Ulrich Exner

HAMBURG - Empty produce markets, full hospitals, ever more infected people, and the certainty that Spanish cucumbers can't be blamed for causing the E. Coli epidemic. Bad news continued to outweigh the good, particularly in the northern part of Germany.

In Hamburg, for example, where—surprisingly, given the circumstances—the long rows of stalls at the weekly Isemarkt, a green market, were open for business as usual. However, at vegetable stalls where produce from Vierlanden, Niedersachsen, Schleswig-Holstein, and also from the local wholesale market, was on sale, much was amiss: not the usual, pressing throngs of customers; unsold tomatoes and cucumbers; only a few takers for lettuce.

All stall owners agreed that sales of other green produce were down as well, with from 30 to 80 percent less turnover overall. One of the market traders, Paul-Hermann Hell, summed it up by saying that it was as bad as Chernobyl, maybe even worse. He had made the trip in to Hamburg from Neuendorf an der Elbe and, he said, it was definitely not worth the effort. Still he didn't blame the customers, given the health crisis and still unanswered questions.

The number of overall reported cases of E. Coli infection, suspected cases, serious cases—and deaths—continued to rise. By Thursday, the death toll from the outbreak was at 17, with thousands reporting symptons. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization confirmed Thursday that the Escherichia coli bacteria is a new strain that has never been seen previously.

We now know that two of the four cucumbers from Spain that were taken from Hamburg's wholesale market last week, tested, and found to carry E. Coli, weren't carrying the same strain as the one that's caused the outbreak, and the other two are also expected to not be a match. So the search is back to square one.

The situation at hospitals is not encouraging. The Asklepios clinics in Hamburg are dealing with over 400 E. Coli patients, and about half those suffering from the severe HUS form develop neurological symptoms between three and five days after being infected. The symptoms include epileptic fits, impaired speech or vision, trembling arms or legs, and confusion.

In many instances, the HUS strain leads to acute kidney failure, and patients thus afflicted have to be placed on permanent dialysis. All of this means an increasing need for more medical personnel. "It's a crisis situation,"" said a staffer at the Hamburg-Eppendorf university clinic where the most seriously HUS-stricken patients are. Vacationing doctors and nurses have been asked to return early from leave, and some doctors no longer with the clinic were coming back to help out.

Meanwhile, in other German states, institutional kitchens are foregoing tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. "It's a shame, but as long as the official warning is not reversed, we can't serve any fresh salads,"" said Gerrit de Vries, manager of Stuttgart's youth hostels. A spokeswoman for the city's Studentenwerk, a service provider for students, said: "We've taken salads and fresh vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes off the menu.""

As a result of such changes, many German farmers aren't bothering to harvest vegetable crops. One of the nation's biggest fruit and vegetable producers‘ organizations, the Mecklenburger Ernte, has stopped vegetable harvests for the time being. The organization's managing director, Klaus-Dieter Wilke, noted that although tests have proved that lettuce and vegetables are free of E. Coli bacteria, sales continue to fall. "In many cases, sales are off by well over half,"" he said.

Over on the west side of Hamburg's Isemarkt, there's a very popular McDonald's branch. And here, ordering a ‘"Hamburger TS‘‘—the TS stands for extra tomato and lettuce—continues to be the most normal thing in the world.

There have been no changes to any of the usual McDonald's menus, and only a few customers leave bits of the ‘"TS"" they've removed from their burgers on their tray. The fact that the bacteria, if it were present here, could travel from the tomato and lettuce to the meat or cheese, apparently doesn't hit home.

Lines at the cash registers are long, and customers don't seem aware that there's anything unusual afoot. It's a good thing local fresh produce trader Paul-Hermann Hell isn't here to see this.

Read the original article in German

photo - Lendog 64

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Society

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