News / Europe

    Identifying Source of Deadly E. Coli Remains a Challenge

    Europe outbreak could end before mystery is solved

    With the number of new E. coli cases appearing to slow down in Europe, the outbreak could soon end without health experts identifying the cause.
    With the number of new E. coli cases appearing to slow down in Europe, the outbreak could soon end without health experts identifying the cause.

    Multimedia

    Audio

    Frustration is building in Europe as the source of Germany's E. coli outbreak remains unsolved. U.S. health experts say tracking down a deadly germ can be a complicated task.

    When they notice an unusual number of people coming down with food poisoning, the first thing public health officials do is try to find out what they all ate recently. E. coli usually takes three or four days to make a person sick, but it may take a week or more. And that presents the first problem.

    "Can you tell me what you ate for dinner on May 30?" asks David Weber, professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says people often do not remember everything they ate over the past week. And even if they do, they may not know all the ingredients, or where they came from. For example, he says, a tomato condiment called salsa was one of the suspects in a 2008 Salmonella outbreak in the United States.

    "It's not just the salsa, but in the salsa are tomatoes, onions, peppers, spices. And then, which manufacturer made the salsa? Where did they get the tomatoes from? Who was the wholesaler? How many different growers provided tomatoes during that week to that wholesaler?"

    Tracing the germ all the way back to the grower may help investigators figure out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. But whatever crop is causing the outbreak was picked some time ago. And by the time investigators get to the farm,

    "That crop may be gone. It may even be plowed under," says Ben Chapman, a food safety expert at North Carolina State University. He notes that investigators have been focusing on fresh produce, but at this point, weeks after the outbreak started, they may not even be able to trace the offending item as far as the patient's refrigerator.

    "It's pretty unlikely that you have a cucumber or a tomato or lettuce sticking around in your fridge six or seven weeks after being exposed," says Chapman.

    Given all the complications, it may be surprising that investigators ever figure out the cause of an outbreak. But the science of epidemiology has gotten very good in recent years, and most of the time they do.  

    The U.S. state of Oregon's public health department is recognized as one of the nation's best. But sometimes officials there are stumped.

    "There have been a couple where there's been, really, at the end of the day, no idea what the product was. It's clearly gone. The outbreak ends. It's very frustrating. But, whatever it was, it disappeared," says William Keene, senior epidemiologist for the Oregon public health department.

    Meanwhile, European officials say the number of new E. coli cases appears to be slowing down. That may mean the outbreak will soon come to an end, with or without identifying the cause.


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    US Internet Giants, EU Reach Deal to Combat Online Hate Speech

    Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft commit to ‘quickly and efficiently’ act to clamp down on use of social media to incite violence, terror

    Video Tunisia’s Ennahda Party Begins a New Political Chapter

    Party now moves to separate its political and religious activities; change described by party members as pragmatic response to political and economic challenges facing Tunisia today

    Virtual Reality Fine-tuned at Asia Tech Show

    Microchip designers hope to improve resolution for users of systems that can turn your bedroom into the ocean floor

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conferencei
    X
    Serginho Roosblad
    May 30, 2016 5:11 PM
    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conference

    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video US Military's Fallen Honored With Flags

    Memorial Day is a long weekend for most Americans. For some, it is the unofficial start of summer -- local swimming pools open and outdoor grilling season begins. But Memorial Day remains true to its origins -- a day to remember the U.S. military's fallen.
    Video

    Video Rolling Thunder Rolls Into Washington

    The Rolling Thunder caravan of motorcycles rolled into Washington Sunday, to support the U.S. military on the country's Memorial Day weekend
    Video

    Video A New Reading Program Pairs Kids with Dogs

    Dogs, it is said, are man's best friend. What some researchers have discovered is that they can also be a friend to a struggling reader. A group called Intermountain Therapy Animals trains dogs to help all kinds of kids with reading problems — from those with special needs to those for whom English is a second language. Faiza Elmasry has more on the New York chapter of R.E.A.D., or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, in this piece narrated by Faith Lapidus.
    Video

    Video Fan Base Grows for Fictional Wyoming Sheriff Longmire

    Around the world, the most enduring symbol of the U.S. is that of the cowboy. A very small percentage of Americans live in Western rural areas, and fewer still are cowboys. But the fascination with the American West is kept alive by such cultural offerings as “Longmire,” a series of books and TV episodes about a fictional Wyoming sheriff. VOA’s Greg Flakus recently spoke with Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson, and filed this report from Houston.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora