17th E coli death in Germany, Britons infected

17th E coli death in Germany, Britons infected

The European E coli outbreak has now claimed 18 lives, 17 in Germany and one in Sweden, health authorities said, as concerns were raised that the outbreak was far from over and consumers shied away from raw vegetables and salads, DPA reported.

Three Britons have also become infected, according to the British Health Ministry.

The 17th German victim, an 81-year-old woman had died in the early hours of Thursday morning from the enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) bacterium, a kidney specialist at the clinic in the northern city of Hamburg said. The death is the third in the city related to the outbreak.

In Britain, three people who had recently travelled to Germany have been confirmed to be infected. A further four Germans on the island are also ill with the infection.

Meanwhile, the European Commission sharply criticized Russia's decision to ban all vegetable imports from the European Union announced on Thursday.

"We're demanding an explanation from Russia," a spokesman for Health Commissioner John Dalli said, calling the ban "disproportionate."

Given the all-clear on Spanish cucumbers on Wednesday, the ban did not make sense, he said. He also demanded that Germany find the source of the infection as soon as possible.

"The authorities must pull all the stops out to find it," he said. "That would be a relief for the whole of Europe and for all consumers."

But Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero criticized Germany's and the European Commission's handling of the outbreak, pledging to seek damages for the losses suffered by Spanish farmers.

The commission should have reacted with "more force and speed" after it was discovered that the epidemic was not caused by Spanish cucumbers, Zapatero said.

The German authorities had made a "flagrant mistake" in blaming the disease on the cucumbers, the premier said.

The commission on Wednesday removed its alert on Spanish cucumbers after final tests in both Germany and Spain "showed that the Spanish vegetable is not responsible" for spreading the EHEC bacteria.

Aside from its 17 German victims, EHEC has also killed one person in Sweden and left more than 1,200 people confirmed ill in Europe and several in the United States.

German officials had already indicated that initial laboratory tests ruled out the cucumbers as being to blame, again leaving the source of the contamination a mystery.

Spain will "forcefully" demand "explanations" and seek "sufficient damages" for the losses suffered by its farmers, Zapatero said. He did not clarify whether Spain expected Germany or the EU to compensate the losses.

"The damage that has been done is big, serious, but we shall use all means to restore" the reputation of Spanish farm products, the premier pledged.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, Junior Farm Minister Henk Bleker said Dutch cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce were "clean and safe" from EHEC.

"Nothing has been found in Dutch vegetables which could cause health problems," the minister said.

According to the Dutch public health board (RIVM), at least nine Dutch nationals have been infected so far with the E-coli bacteria.

The export of Dutch cucumbers to Germany collapsed this week as a result of the EHEC outbreak.

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