Deadly E coli strain can now spread person to person, experts warn
THE deadly strain of E coli that has killed 18 people in Germany is at risk of spreading from person to person, the British Health Protection Agency (HPA) warned last night.
As three new cases of the food-poisoning bacteria were diagnosed in the UK, the HPA said the new mutant strain was so virulent that sufferers risked spreading the infection to their friends and relatives through close contact.
However, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Alan Reilly said there were no confirmed cases in Ireland. But in the UK, health officials said anyone who had recently travelled to Germany should be particularly vigilant about their personal hygiene to minimise the risk of passing on the bacteria, which can attack the kidneys with potentially fatal consequences.
More than 1,600 people have now been infected worldwide -- mainly in northern Germany -- and hundreds have been left seriously ill, with at least 18 having died.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday identified the bacteria as a "completely new" mutant strain, which was both more toxic and infectious than the usual varieties. It can cause the deadly haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS), which affects the blood and kidneys.
Experts are still unable to say where the outbreak originated from, having ruled out the initial theory that it came from a consignment of Spanish cucumbers.
Dr Bob Adak, an expert in gastrointestinal infections at the HPA, said his organisation had interviewed the families of all of those involved and advised them to take precautions to avoid a secondary spread of the bacteria.
"We're extremely concerned by it," he said.
"We are on the lookout for secondary infections, because it is quite infectious you don't need many bacteria on your hand to spread it.
"People who have been to Germany and come back should be careful with their hygiene.
"If they experience abdominal cramps or diarrhoea they should seek medical advice. This illness can develop and spread very quickly."
E coli is usually contracted by eating contaminated food, but it can spread from person to person if the strain is infectious enough.
People need to be particularly careful to wash their hands thoroughly after using the toilet.
Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the WHO, said the new strain had characteristics that made it "more virulent and toxin-producing".
Preliminary genetic sequencing suggests that the strain is a new, mutant form of two different E coli bacteria, according to the WHO.
"This is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before," Ms Kruse said.
It is resistant to antibiotics and has an eight-day incubation period, which means that the outbreak could be yet to peak.
Unlike previous outbreaks, the new strain of E coli mainly attacks women rather than children or elderly people.
More than three-quarters of the people suffering from serious kidney problems are adult women.
Dr Alexander Mellmann, the scientist who mapped the DNA of the bacteria at the University of Munster in Germany, said the new strain was one of the worst he had seen.
He said the bacteria had evolved to become both more toxic and also better at "sticking" to human cells, increasing the chance of infection.
He said: "This is a combination of two different groups of E coli which have led to increased pathogenicity. It can adhere very well to human cells, which makes it easier to transmit."
The HPA is advising people to wash salads and to avoid eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy salads if they are travelling to Germany. (© Daily Telegraph, London)