E. coli death toll rises in Europe: Blame cucumbers?

Caption: A market seller gives a cucumber to a woman in a fruit and vegetable market in Malaga, southern Spain Monday May 30, 2011. Vegetables from Spain are suspected of carrying the dangerous E.coli bacteria, which is suspected of killing some people in Germany and has caused many hundreds of people to become ill across Europe. Austria has moved to ban the sale of cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants that originated from Spain, although Spanish authorities said there is no proof that they are the source of the outbreak. (AP Photo/Sergio Torres) AP

A market seller gives a cucumber to a woman in a produce market in Malaga, Spain Monday on May 30, 2011. Vegetables from Spain are suspected of carrying E. coli bacteria, which are suspected of killing and sickening people across Europe.
AP

(CBS/AP) A deadly E. coli outbreak in Europe seems to be getting worse. Cucumbers harboring the hazardous bacteria killed another two people, bringing the death toll to 16 - including the first death outside Germany.

Germany's national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said 373 people were sick with the most serious complication stemming from the outbreak - hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. A spokesman for the agency, Susanne Glasmacher, said another 796 people had been affected by another form of the bacteria - enterohaemorrhagic E. coli, or EHEC - making a total of more than 1,150 people infected with that particular strain.

EHEC hit Montana in 1994, sickening 11 people. One year later, a related E. coli strain killed four kids in the western U.S. and sickened about 500 people after they ate contaminated hamburgers at a fast-food chain, Jack in the Box. Unlike those outbreaks, however, the European one is larger, deadlier, and mainly strikes adults.

Symptoms of diseases caused by EHEC include abdominal cramps and diarrhea - sometimes bloody - and fever and vomiting.

Hundreds of people have been sickened in other European countries, but Germany had seen the only death until Tuesday, when a woman in her 50s died in Sweden.

The Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control on Monday said 39 Swedes had been infected with EHEC so far, including 15 with the severe HUS.

Other cases have been reported in Denmark, France, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Officials originally traced the outbreak to two batches of Spanish cucumbers, but Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment is warning consumers to avoid all cucumbers, lettuces and raw tomatoes as the outbreak is investigated. A third suspect batch, originating either in the Netherlands or in Denmark and traded in Germany, is also under investigation.

Officials have also noted, however, that the transport chain is long, and the cucumbers from Spain could have been contaminated along the route.

In the meantime, Russia's chief sanitary agency on Monday banned the imports of cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh salad from Spain and Germany and said it might ban imports of fresh vegetables from all members of the European Union due to the lack of information about the source of infection.

Should Americans worry? FDA spokesman Siobhan DeLancey told CBS News in an email that the agency is monitoring U.S ports for Spanish cucumber imports but that the risk in the U.S. is small. What about the risk faced by Americans traveling abroad? A press officer for the U.S. State Department, Harry G. Edwards, said  Americans who get sick while traveling in Europe should alert a U.S. embassy or consulate.

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