The scientific reaction and the diplomatic squabbling about the recent E. coli outbreak has been mostly limited to wider Europe. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they are monitoring the situation and, indeed, two cases have already been reported in the U.S.
This outbreak, characterized by a rare strain of E. coli, has hit Europe – especially Germany – with unusual swiftness and force that left scientists stunned. An NBC News report included experts saying things like “unprecedented,” and representatives from the World Health Organization said that this strain of E. coli has never been isolated in patients before.
The number of cases in now in the thousands. The Robert Koch Institute, the federal public health service of Germany, said that as of Tuesday, 470 of those cases had developed into hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. According to a New York Times story, HUS attacks the kidneys and can be fatal. As of this morning, 17 people have died.
While the epicenter of the outbreak seems to be Northern Germany, the exact origin is unclear. Spanish cucumbers were originally a culprit, but that theory was later discredited. Spain, in the meantime, is considering a lawsuit for being named; Russia has issued a blanket ban on vegetable imports from Europe, while the United Arab Emirates banned cucumbers from four European countries.
So far, the story is largely unfolding an ocean away; save for the two U.S. cases – which affected two Americans who had recently traveled to Hamburg, Germany, in the northern part of the country – the story feels far removed.
But it is of some importance for the CDC. The agency reports that it is following developments in the outbreak and has maintained contact with RKI in Germany. Moreover, it is serving as a conduit by passing on information to state and local health authorities. (The CDC press release, linked above, also has a list of four frequently asked questions.)
Still, the CDC is limited in what it can do, according to Karl Moeller, executive director of our sister organizations, Campaign for Public Health and The CPH Foundation. (Moeller has frequently led Congressional tours of CDC headquarters and offices.) Because there are no cases that originated in the U.S., the CDC would likely play only a support role if asked by the RKI, he said.
Of course, the CDC will continue its own surveillance and, as noted, pass along updates to relevant U.S. authorities. Since the disease is rare, hospitals and other health care providers may not think to test for this strain of E. coli. Moeller said the CDC may play a role in warning hospitals.