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Outbreak of Shiga Toxin–Producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O104:H4 Infection in Germany Causes a Paradigm Shift with Regard to Human Pathogenicity of STEC Strains

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An outbreak that comprised 3,842 cases of human infections with enteroaggregative hemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EAHEC) O104:H4 occurred in Germany in May 2011. The high proportion of adults affected in this outbreak and the unusually high number of patients that developed hemolytic uremic syndrome makes this outbreak the most dramatic since enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) strains were first identified as agents of human disease. The characteristics of the outbreak strain, the way it spread among humans, and the clinical signs resulting from EAHEC infections have changed the way Shiga toxin–producing E. coli strains are regarded as human pathogens in general. EAHEC O104:H4 is an emerging E. coli pathotype that is endemic in Central Africa and has spread to Europe and Asia. EAHEC strains have evolved from enteroaggregative E. coli by uptake of a Shiga toxin 2a (Stx2a)–encoding bacteriophage. Except for Stx2a, no other EHEC-specific virulence markers including the locus of enterocyte effacement are present in EAHEC strains. EAHEC O104:H4 colonizes humans through aggregative adherence fimbrial pili encoded by the enteroaggregative E. coli plasmid. The aggregative adherence fimbrial colonization mechanism substitutes for the locus of enterocyte effacement functions for bacterial adherence and delivery of Stx2a into the human intestine, resulting clinically in hemolytic uremic syndrome. Humans are the only known natural reservoir known for EAHEC. In contrast, Shiga toxin–producing E. coli and EHEC are associated with animals as natural hosts. Contaminated sprouted fenugreek seeds were suspected as the primary vehicle of transmission of the EAHEC O104:H4 outbreak strain in Germany. During the outbreak, secondary transmission (human to human and human to food) was important. Epidemiological investigations revealed fenugreek seeds as the source of entry of EAHEC O104:H4 into the food chain; however, microbiological analysis of seeds for this pathogen produced negative results. The survival of EAHEC in seeds and the frequency of human carriers of EAHEC should be investigated for a better understanding of EAHEC transmission routes.

Document Type: Review Article


Affiliations: 1: National Reference Laboratory for Escherichia coli, Unit 41, Microbial Toxins, Germany 2: Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Mathematical Modeling, Scientific Services, Unit 33, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, Diedersdorfer Weg 1, D-12277 Berlin, Germany

Publication date: February 1, 2012

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