BERLIN (AP) - Hospitals in northern Germany are being overwhelmed as they struggle to provide enough beds and medical care for patients stricken by an outbreak of E. coli, the German health minister admitted Sunday.
"The situation in the hospitals is intense," minister Daniel Bahr told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, adding that clinics outside of Hamburg and northern Germany - the epicenter of the E.coli outbreak - should start taking in ill persons from the north.
Bahr announced he would visit the University Medical Center in Hamburg-Eppendorf later Sunday to see the situation firsthand and talk to physicians and nurses who have been working overtime and double-shifts for weeks in a row.
Hamburg is the epicenter of the deadliest E. coli outbreak in modern history, which has killed at least 18 people since May 2. More than 1,700 people in Germany have been infected, including 520 suffering from a life-threatening complication that can cause kidney failure. Ten other European nations and the U.S. have reported 90 other cases, all but two related to visits in northern Germany.
One E. coli survivor, 41-year-old Nicoletta Pabst, told The Associated Press that sanitary conditions at the Hamburg-Eppendorf hospital were horrendous when she arrived with cramps and bloody diarrhea. She said at least 20 others had a similar condition in the emergency room.
"All of us had diarrhea and there was only one bathroom each for men and women - it was a complete mess," she said. "If I hadn't been sick with E. coli by then, I probably would have picked it up over there."
After waiting three hours to be seen, Pabst was told to go home because her blood levels did not indicate that she had kidney failure. She had to return by ambulance the next morning and was hospitalized for a week at a different hospital.
While suspicion has fallen on raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce as the source of the bacterial outbreak, researchers have been unable to pinpoint exactly where or what food was responsible.
Researchers from Germany's national disease control center have inspected a restaurant in the northern city of Luebeck where 17 people were reported to have fallen ill with E. coli last month. Health experts were also investigating whether the disease spread at a festival in Hamburg that was visited by 1.5 million people.
Critics have questioned the slow pace of the investigation. The medical director of Berlin's Charite Hospitals, Ulrich Frei, said it made him "anxious" that a month after the outbreak there was still no clue as to what caused it and said experts "should have interviewed the patients right away."
Fear of the aggressive E.coli outbreak also spread to countries outside Europe.
The Gulf nation of Qatar on Sunday temporarily banned imports of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce from Spain and Germany because of concerns and insisted all other fresh fruit and vegetable shipments from Europe carry a health certificate declaring they are free of the E. coli bacteria.
The United Arab Emirates has banned cucumber imports from Spain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, while Lebanon has banned all vegetables from the 27-nation European Union.
Russia has also banned vegetables from the entire EU to keep the outbreak from spreading east, a move the EU called disproportionate and Italian farmers denounced as "absurd." No E. coli infections have been reported in Russia.
Adam Schreck contributed to this story from Dubai.