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Military officials step up precautions for E. coli outbreak

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The U.S. military community in Europe is taking additional precautions in response to the deadly E. coli outbreak spreading across Europe.

Military health officials are keeping daily tabs on base medical clinics and local hospitals in the region for Americans presenting with symptoms indicative of E. coli infection, namely bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. So far, there are no confirmed cases of the food-borne illness among Defense Department personnel in Europe.

The World Health Organization said Thursday that the E. coli bacteria that has sickened hundreds of people across Germany and spread to surrounding countries is a new strain, The Associated Press reported.

U.S. military health officials have been issuing daily bulletins, urging people to seek medical attention immediately if they experience bloody diarrhea and reminding people to avoid consuming raw cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce, which have been identified as possible sources of the bacteria, though authorities have still not identified the actual source.

All commissaries pulled those products from their shelves late Wednesday afternoon, after being directed to do so by U.S. Public Health Command Region Europe officials.

The public health directive also applied to military dining facilities, Army and Air Force Exchange Service food vendors and DODDS schools in Europe, said Phillip Tegtmeier, Europe Regional Medical Command spokesman, though chow halls and AAFES fast food outlets had already begun removing those items from their menus and salad bars last week.

German health authorities zeroed in on cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce after a number of people who became infected with the E. coli bacteria reported eating salad recently.

The illness has spread to at least 10 European countries and killed 18 people. It has sickened more than 1,500 people, including 470 who have developed a rare complication linked to kidney failure, The Associated Press reported Thursday. Most of the cases are in Germany.

Despite U.S. health authorities efforts to keep the military community informed, not everyone had heard about the outbreak.

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“That’s why they’re out of the things I like on my sandwich,” said one soldier walking out of a Subway on Vogelweh Thursday. She would not give her name. “At least now I know.”

Army spouse Donovan Whitfield, 46, knew of the outbreak “because they’re not even serving salads at my daughter’s school,” Sembach Elementary.

Whitfield thinks such restrictive measures are appropriate.

“I commend them for it,” he said of the military’s effort to educate and protect people from the illness.

But others think the military has gone too far.

“I understand why they did it but I don’t think it’s needed,” said Air Force spouse Leah Palmer, 29, of base stores and shelves void of cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. “We can take care of ourselves.”

“I just paid $8 for a sandwich (at Subway) with nothing on it,” said Air Force spouse Tiffany Herron, 24. “I was pretty annoyed.”

Friend Kristy Hansen, 27, said she was still eating those vegetables raw “and I’m still here.”

Others were more wary.

“Off base, I am avoiding vegetables,” said Army civilian Sascha Dixon, 30, referring to cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and bell peppers. Bell peppers? “It’s just a personal choice,” he said. “There’s really not much more that I can do.”

svanj@estripes.osd.mil

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