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Microbe outbreak panics Europe

Spread of rare Escherichia coli strain raises questions over surveillance of infectious diseases.

Confronted with what has become one of the world's most severe outbreaks of Escherichia coli, physicians and scientists in Germany say that the country's fractured health-management system has failed to handle the crisis properly. They are calling for major reforms so that outbreaks are reported sooner and more modern technology is used to help identify their source, in order to bring health emergencies under control more quickly.

During the past month, a strain of entero­haemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) has infected more than 2,400 people in 13 countries across Europe, killing 23 . Public-health experts — scattered across many state and federal ministries for health, agriculture and consumer protection — are still trying to pin down where the bacterium came from and why it causes such severe symptoms.

Hospitals recorded the first cases on 1 May, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German federal agency for disease surveillance in Berlin. Yet it was not until 22 May that the first report of an unusual number of EHEC infections in Germany arrived at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm. This was unusually long — it typically takes 14 days to detect an outbreak, says Angelika Fruth from the RKI.

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