BERLIN -- The number of people hit by a massive European outbreak of foodborne bacterial infections is one-third higher than previously known and a stunningly high number of patients are suffering from a potentially deadly complication than can shut down their kidneys, officials said yesterday.
The death toll rose to 17, as an 84-year-old woman in Germany died on Sunday.
Authorities appeared no closer to discovering the source of the infection or the mystery at the heart of the outbreak: why the unusual strain of the E. coli bacteria appears to be causing so many cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, which attacks the kidneys and can cause seizures, strokes and comas.
"This particular strain we're dealing with now seems to be unique," said Dr. Hilde Kruse, program manager for food safety at WHO Europe. Germany's national health agency said 1,534 people in the country had been infected by EHEC, a particularly deadly strain of the common bacteria found in the digestive systems of cows, humans and other mammals.
Virtually all of the sick people either live in Germany or traveled there recently.
German authorities pointed first to cucumbers from Spain after people fell ill in Hamburg after eating fresh produce. Further tests showed that those vegetables, while contaminated, did not cause the outbreak. Spanish officials said they were considering legal action after Europeans swore off Spanish produce in droves after the initial report.
More than 60 percent of the EHEC cases in Germany have been women, 88 percent of them over the age of 20, and nearly 90 percent of the HUS cases have been women over 20. It remains unclear why most of those affected are adults and not children or the elderly, normally more susceptible to this illness, Kruse said.
WHO said cases of the illness have been reported in Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K. All but two cases are of people in Germany or people who had recently traveled to northern Germany, the organization said.
U.S. health officials say two people who traveled recently to Hamburg and are back in the United States have the bug. Also, an American tourist who traveled to the Czech Republic from Germany was hospitalized in Prague, officials said.