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Hygiene warning over E coli spread

An Irish scientist yesterday urged people to be extra vigilant over the coming weeks to stay healthy in the deadly E coli outbreak, which has yet to reach here, as German experts looked for clues about the source of the food bug in a restaurant after 17 people fell ill after eating there.

And while Irish health authorities believe it is inevitable that there will be an outbreak here of the highly toxic strain of E coli, which has killed 19 people, EU health officials said the rate of infection had fallen in the past two days.

Irish health authorities remain on high alert and Dr James McInerney, head of Molecular Evolution and Bioinformatics at NUI Maynooth in Co Kildare, said the outbreak would eventually die out as the strain died out or we adapted to it.

"If it persists, we could develop a vaccine but it's unlikely to happen. We need to be extra vigilant over the coming weeks to stay healthy and safe," he said.

"But it is human behaviour that has caused it, and the way our modern society is structured, will continue to do so," he added.

The director of the HSE's Public Health Laboratory, Dr Eleanor McNamara, said an outbreak plan had been put in place to deal with any surge in suspect cases should the bug spread to Ireland.

It has already reached 10 European countries and the United States.

She urged the public to follow strong hygiene guidelines on frequent and thorough handwashing after using the toilet and before eating, and to ensure small children were helped with this.

Meanwhile, stores and supermarkets reported that so far there had been little impact on salad food sales after the outbreak began in Europe.

Superquinn in Blackrock, Dublin, reported that they had not seen a noticeable drop off in salad sales, although some people may be buying less.

And the Blazing Salads deli in Drury Street, Dublin, said they had a busy week and no-one had commented on it, while cucumber was only used in one of their salads.

Meanwhile, German scientists are trying to find the source of the bug in a restaurant in Luebeck. Seventeen people who fell ill from the the E coli bacteria included a group of German tax officials and tourists from nearby Denmark, the Luebecker Nachrichten newspaper said.

"The restaurant is not to blame," insisted Werner Solbach, a microbiologist at University Medical Centre Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. "However, the supply chain could give us important clues about how the pathogen was passed along."

So far, authorities in Germany have yet to pin down the source of the bacteria, which has killed at least 19 people in Europe and made more than 1,700 ill in 12 countries -- all of whom had been travelling in northern Germany.

A German woman, one of the tax officials who had attended the Luebeck restaurant, died in hospital after contracting E coli.

Many who contracted E coli have developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly complication that can lethally affect the kidneys.

The group of German tax officials, who were attending a tax union event, ate at the restaurant on May 13, the union head said yesterday.

The Luebecker Nachrichten newspaper said all victims ate there between May 12 and May 14.

German news magazine Focus reported yesterday that officials are pursuing a theory in which the outbreak started at the beginning of May in Hamburg as people started becoming ill after a week, consistent with E coli's incubation period.

The food contamination is believed to have been caused by poor hygiene at a farm, in transit, a shop or food outlet.

European health institutes have tried to reassure the public that the spread of E coli, a frequent cause of food poisoning, can be contained by washing vegetables and hands before eating.

Efforts to identify the source of the outbreak have been complicated by the fact that salads include a variety of ingredients from different producers and often different countries.

The World Health Organisation said the strain was a rare one, seen in humans before, but never in this kind of outbreak.

Sunday Independent