Germany reported its first death Tuesday from a virulent super-bacterium that has spread through the north of the country in just a week, possibly via fresh produce sold in supermarkets, DPA reported.
Hundreds of people have fallen gravely ill from the new sub-strain of E. coli. It causes internal bleeding, diarrhoea and kidney failure and is partly resistant to antibiotics, scientists said.
An 83-year-old woman died of her infection in a hospital at Diepholz near Hanover, state health officials said. She was admitted to hospital in "mid-May." Lab tests showed she had enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC), a dangerous form of E. coli.
A second death, of a young woman in a hospital at Bremen, may have been caused by EHEC, officials said as lab tests were under way.
The infections have sprung up at widely separated places, ruling out human-to-human infection. In one state alone, Schleswig-Holstein, the total of suspected cases doubled Tuesday to 200.
"This outbreak has got no historical precedent," said microbiologist Werner Solbach.
Investigators suspect the EHEC is spreading through a vegetable crop that has been sprayed by the grower with liquid manure, but admit they have not been able to identify any product used by all the victims. Southern regions of Germany have not been affected.
Health Minister Daniel Bahr phoned Germany's infectious diseases centre, the Robert Koch Institute, for a briefing, a spokesman said.
Around 800 to 1,200 cases of EHEC are recorded in Germany each year, predominantly affecting children. The current outbreak is unusual for causing potentially fatal symptoms in adults, mostly in women, suggesting the bacterium has mutated.
Doctors warned cooks to wash food carefully. E. coli can be killed by heating food for at least five minutes above 60 degrees celsius.