Reform falters in Europe after 53 deaths from E. coli O104 in sprouts

In May, 2011, the delayed reporting of cases between agencies due to a decentralized government and its agencies was a contributing factor in the Germany-based E. coli O104 outbreak that led to 53 deaths and over 4,000 sick people. The E. coli strain responsible for the outbreak was unusually virulent, with high mortality and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) rates observed in healthy adults.

A year later, Marian Turner writes in Nature that governments have made little progress towards improving the monitoring and reporting systems that allowed the crisis to drag on for weeks.

Although the panic has sparked some proposed policy changes, these have become mired in political debate at both German and European levels.

Under Germany’s current system, it can take up to 18 days for local and state health departments to relay case reports to the Berlin-based Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German federal agency for disease surveillance. Legislators have proposed a law to bring the country’s disease-reporting schedule into line with the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations. The law would require local health authorities to report cases of notifiable diseases to state authorities on the next working day; the states would then have another day to relay the information to the RKI. “We’ve been waiting almost a decade for this,” says Alexander Kekulé, a microbiologist at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Halle, Germany.

The draft law has been passed by Germany’s federal parliament but is stuck in negotiations at the legislative council that represents Germany’s 16 states. For scientists, though, this change would still not be enough. “What really delayed the detection of this outbreak was the irregularity with which patients were referred for microbiological follow-up,” says Gérard Krause, an epidemiologist at the RKI. Like many European countries, Germany does not require that a patient with bloody diarrhoea or haemolytic uraemic syndrome (a life-threatening complication of some E. coli infections) be tested for the causative bacterial strain. The same is true of the United States.

After the outbreak, German diagnostic laboratories were provided with kits to test samples for genes belonging to certain pathogenic strains of bacteria, such as those expressing particular toxins, or proteins involved in adhesion or invasion.

But physicians are responsible for requesting the tests, and the cost is not covered by German health-insurance companies. “The problem is mostly getting the money to use these kits,” says Angelika Fruth, a microbiologist at the RKI, “and that situation is just the same as before the outbreak.”

In the wake of the outbreak, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that sprouted seeds pose a particular food-safety concern, and recommended that a standardized test for sprouts be developed and adopted across the European Union (EU). But EU member countries are still discussing the proposal, and scientists have yet to develop reliable methods to isolate pathogenic bacteria from seeds or sprouts.