European food safety investigators are still trying to determine the scope and source of a deadly E. coli bacterial infection believed to have been spread by tainted vegetables.
The outbreak, which started in mid-May, has led to 16 deaths, 15 of them in Germany. One woman died in Sweden after returning from travels in Germany.
E. coli, which is found in the digestive systems of humans and farm animals, has been responsible for a number of food contamination outbreaks in many countries. In most cases, it causes nonlethal stomach ailments.
But this particular strain -- identified by scientists as EHEC serotype 0104 -- is rare and especially virulent.
Many patients experience bloody diarrhea, which in the most serious cases turns into hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), in which the E. coli infection attacks the kidneys.
More than 1,400 people have been sickened by the outbreak in Germany and Sweden as well as in Austria, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland. Most of those affected are people who recently recently traveled to Germany.
The World Health Organization says 86 percent of those sickened in the current outbreak are adults and two-thirds are women. More than 400 of them are suffering from severe and potentially fatal symptoms.
Patients in critical care need blood plasma transfusions. Officials in the city of Hamburg, the epicenter of the outbreak, said hospitals have enough plasma for immediate needs but appealed for donations today to help head off a crisis later.
German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner today said scientists are working nonstop to try to find out the exact source of this strain. But officials are warning Germans to avoid eating raw cucumbers, tomatoes, or lettuce.
The outbreak has generated tensions among European countries.
German authorities initially pointed to contaminated cucumbers imported from Spain as being the source of the killer bacteria.
Spanish officials rejected that scenario, saying it was still unclear exactly when and where the vegetables were contaminated. But Aigner today defended last week's precautionary warning against eating Spanish cucumbers.
"Spain's claims are based on what Hamburg [health officials] said," Aigner said. "But I must repeat that Hamburg did find the E. coli pathogen on Spanish cucumbers, even though the two tested cucumbers' [bacteria] are not of that particular type. But they are contaminated cucumbers and that's why a rapid alert was absolutely in accordance with European law."
Madrid said the issue should be treated as a "common problem" and demanded European Union compensation for Spanish and other European producer countries hit by the crisis. It also threatened to sue Hamburg for damages after the German city initially pointed to Spanish cucumbers as the source of the outbreak.
The Netherlands has also said it will ask for compensation.
Consumers Are Suspicious
Reports say the export of Dutch cucumbers to Germany -- worth 8 million euros a week -- has collapsed since cucumbers were cited as a possible source of the infection.
German producers say they are losing at least 2 million euros per day because "consumers everywhere are suspicious" of their produce.
Spain's fruit and vegetable export federation says the outbreak is costing exporters $200 million ($290 million) a week as importers across Europe stop buying Spanish produce.
And the technical secretary of the agricultural union in Catalunya, Joan Manel Mesado, feared the fruit sector would also be hit.
"It's affecting cucumber exports above all, but it will soon affect other vegetables and at this time, aside from impacting Spain's vegetable production, it will also affect summer fruits," he said.
In a further sign of growing tension, the French government called for greater transparency from Spain and Germany.
The German parliament called a special meeting of its consumer protection committee to discuss emergency measures later in the day.
At this stage, the European Commission considers "any ban on any product as disproportionate" amid Spanish media reports saying Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden, Belgium, and Russia were blocking entry of Spanish cucumbers.
European Union Health Commissioner John Dalli said today that the outbreak was "serious" but ruled out the need to ban cucumber sales or travel to its Hamburg epicenter.
Moscow has banned cucumber and tomato imports from Spain and Germany, and has warned it could extend the ban to all European Union member nations until the source of the infection is found.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said shipments of cucumbers and other food grown in Spain were being investigated by U.S. health officials.
compiled from agency reports