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New strain of E.coli responsible for deadly European outbreak: WHO

Lab in Czech Republic testing vegetables E.coli bacterium, June 1, 2011. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Petr David Josek.

A new and more virulent strain of E.coli bacteria is responsible for the deadly outbreak in Europe that has killed 18 people and sickened more than 1,500 others, the World Health Organization confirmed Thursday.

In Canada, food inspectors are taking a closer look at cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes from European countries affected by an E. coli outbreak – even though officials aren’t sure those vegetables are the source of the outbreak. No Canadians have been reported ill.

Germany has been hardest hit by the outbreak that has affected nine European countries. German authorities are warning people not to eat lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

This outbreak is said to be the third-largest and the deadliest involving E.coli in recent history, followed by a 1996 outbreak in Japan that sickened 12,000 people and the 2000 outbreak in Walkerton, Ont. that killed seven.

The WHO says it appears the strain is a mutant form of two different E.coli bacteria — a unique strain, never seen before that has various characteristics that make it stronger and more toxin-producing.

The agency is racing to pinpoint the source of the outbreak.

WHO food safety expert Hilde Kruse said it’s not unusual for bacteria from both humans and animals to evolve and swap genes. This particular strain is more dangerous than others — it’s mostly hitting adults, particularly women. Usually, severe cases of E.coli are only seen in kids and the elderly. Of the more than 1,500 sickened by the bacteria, 470 have developed a rare kidney failure complication.

On Thursday, Russia extended a ban on vegetable imports from the European Union — the ban initially included only fresh imports from Spain and Germany. The United Arab Emirates has also temporarily banned cucumbers from Spain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Spain, meanwhile, is taking legal action against Germany for singling it out as the source of the outbreak.

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press.