In May and June, an EHEC epidemic started in Germany. According to the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin it was the worldwide most severe EHEC outbreak ever. About 3800 patients were diagnosed with the E.coli-variant bacteria EHEC O104:H4 and developed an enterogastritis or a hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), causing 53 deaths in Germany. The disease also spread over European countries and Northern America, too, mostly via tourists, adding 137 cases (2 deaths, one of them in the US).
As soon as the Robert Koch Institute got knowledge of the outbreak, it started an investigation. The source seemed to be salads, but whether the germ came from cucumbers or tomatoes or other ingredients was not clear, first. Later, through comparisons of recipes of restaurants in Hamburg and their healthy and infected visitors, sprouts were found to be the source - and these sprouts were bred on an organic farm in Northern Germany from seeds from Egypt. The health authorities closed the farm, but so far, they were not successful to detect the pathogenic EHEC strain on the remaining sprouts (using smear samples). So it is still not entirely clear, who is responsible for the outbreak.
Now the Focus (a weekly magazine) had a small report about the possible cause. The article quotes the hygienic expert Martin Exner from the University of Bonn, that the EHEC bacteria, that were stuck to the seeds from Egypt, were in a state of "sleep", kind of. They were reactivated due to the hygienic conditions at the organic farm, where the restrooms are "near" the water reservoir for the plants. Well, this does not make sense to you or seem to explain anything? Some information seems to be missing here, but that didn't worry the news agency dapd to pick up this report, which means to reprint it almost identically. And again, Hamburger Abendblatt, Welt, BZ and RP-Online picked it up, with not much editing or efforts to fill the obvious gaps.
Looks like, a radio reporter has to show, how to report about a hypothesis, because that's what Exner's statement is. Martin Winkelheide (Deutschlandfunk) actually visited the meeting in Munich, where Exner gave a talk, and made a report with Exner's quotes. The piece describes the hypothetical scenario in such a way, that readers/listeners can actually understand, what Exner meant: First, some workers ingested some of the seeds with the "sleeping" EHEC bacteria. Second, the bacteria got reactivated in the digestive tract. Third, the workers either used the restrooms in an unhygienic way or some of the revived bacteria found their way from the restrooms to the nearby water reservoir for the seeds. That no EHEC bacteria were detected on the sprouts via smear samples might be due to the possibility, that they fall "asleep" as soon as they do not enjoy the comfortable environment of the digestive tract anymore, according to Exner in the Deutschlandfunk piece. Most important: The articles says explicitly, that this is just a hypothesis, not proven by any scientific standards! (The Allgemeine Zeitung chose to almost copy paste on the Deutschlandfunk report, by the way). The Deutschlandfunk piece would have been perfect, if it included a second, independent voice, who weighs the plausibility of the hypothesis - the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung and the Umweltbundesamt, e.g., which are the official authorities dealing with food and water related diseases. That's what the Süddeutsche Zeitung did, months ago (in June)! In his article, Markus C. Schulte von Drach asked the Umweltbundesamt about a quote from Exner about the possibility of a distribution of EHEC via drinking water (which was printed by the Spiegel) and got angry responses like "arbitrary panicmongering".
Addendum: Apparently, neither the Focus in its original announcement, nor dapd or other "copypasters" actually talked to the expert Exner in person - according to Exner himself (the tracker asked him), who is "aghast" about how he was quoted. He said, that in his talk at the scientific meeting in Munich, he explicitly made clear, that he described nothing more than a hypothesis, which had to be further investigated. The Ärztezeitung took a few more hours time and talked to Exner, and got it right in their report, that this is just a hypothesis.
More about the EHEC epidemic and the way, the German media reported about this outbreak, and what (science) journalists could (and should) learn for reporting about the next epidemic: An interview (in German) with Susanne Glasmacher (Public Relations @ Robert-Koch-Institute).
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