(Updates with doctors’ comments in fourth, 13th paragraphs.)
June 9 (Bloomberg) -- Holger Radloff, who is hospitalized in Hamburg with a severe kidney complication after contracting E. coli in Germany’s largest outbreak of the disease, got a welcome telephone call to his hospital bed.
“Dad, I can move my right arm,” said Radloff’s son, who is also in the hospital after partly losing his sight and hearing and becoming paralyzed in parts of his body when he, too, developed the complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome. “That was like a wonder,” Radloff said yesterday.
The father and son are among victims of Germany’s worst- ever E. coli outbreak, which has killed 25 people and sickened at least 2,742 throughout Europe since May 2, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. German officials, who first blamed Spanish cucumbers and then local sprouts without finding definitive evidence those vegetables caused the outbreak, are still struggling to find the source.
The German strain, known as O104, is unusual because it produces a shigella-like toxin that attacks red blood cells, causing them to coagulate. The kidneys fail in 55 percent to 70 percent of E. coli patients with hemolytic uremic syndrome, according to Malvinder S. Parmar, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa in Canada.
Radloff, a 49-year-old journalist living in Hamburg, said his family fell ill in mid-May after eating a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, sprouts and lettuce.
His 18-year-old daughter was the first to get sick with symptoms such as diarrhea and strong pains. While she recovered relatively quickly, his 16-year-old son developed worse symptoms and was admitted to the hospital. Radloff got sick one week later, with “unbelievable pains,” and was also hospitalized, he said. A family friend who also ate the dish came down with the E. coli infection, while his wife escaped the disease.
“In the phase with diarrhea and pains, you focus completely on yourself, you don’t know what happens around you and you don’t really want to know what’s going on,” Radloff said. “My son was really ill at the same time -- I knew that -- but I was not in a state to ask how he was, because all my concentration was focused on myself. I’m a journalist and was no longer interested in taking in what was happening at the time.”
Radloff and his son both developed the potentially fatal kidney complication. Radloff, who is now recovering at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, was treated with dialysis and plasma transfusions to fight the infection.
Wake, Eat, Sleep
“It is crazy,” the journalist said. “When you get dialysis or plasma, you get tired and fall asleep part of the time before waking up very hungry and eating like crazy. Then you get tired again and continue to sleep,” he said.
The UKE, Hamburg’s largest hospital, is treating 81 adult patients and 22 children who have developed the kidney complication after being infected with E. coli. About 24 of the adult patients and five of the children are in intensive care, the hospital reported.
Since the epidemic began, 20 patients with the kidney problem have been discharged from the hospital, while six are in rehabilitation. So far, two of the hospital’s patients died from the kidney complication -- an 81-year-old woman and an 87-year- old woman.
Hemolytic uremic syndrome caused by shigella-like toxin is most common in children younger than 2 to 3 years, according to Parmar at the University of Ottawa. Renal function returns in 70 -85 percent of E. coli patients who suffer kidney failure, he said.
The outlook for sufferers is generally viewed with “guarded optimism,” said Robert Unwin, head of nephrology at University College London.
“The form of HUS precipitated by infection, often E. coli, and associated with diarrhea, usually has a better outlook, particularly in children, though perhaps a little less so in adults,” Unwin said in an e-mail. “It all depends on its severity and duration -- and the time needed for artificial kidney support, dialysis, if this proves to be necessary.”
The epidemic has peaked and the situation for many of the patients at the Hamburg UKE hospital is improving, Joerg F. Debatin, UKE’s medical director, said June 7 in an interview.
“The clinical status of the patients is improving, rather slowly and not for everyone, but by and large when you look at the about 100 patients we have, they’re doing better and we’re not seeing any new developed HUS cases,” Debatin, who has worked at UKE for eight years, said. The outbreak “is the worst crisis I have ever seen, not in terms of numbers but in terms of so many really sick patients, and so many very young patients.”
The cause of the outbreak is still unknown, German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said in Berlin yesterday. There’s “justified optimism” to assume that “the worst is behind” Germany from the outbreak, still, officials “can’t sound the all-clear” and more deaths may occur, Bahr said.
Radloff was waiting yesterday afternoon for the rain to stop after doctors told him he could go outside for fresh air for a few minutes.
“Then I am going to go visit my son,” he said.
--With assistance from Jason Gale in Singapore. Editors: Andrew Pollack, John Lear
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