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U.S. Advice Sought on Food Poisoning

July 26, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Japanese ministers apologized Friday for the worst outbreak of food poisoning in a decade, and acknowledged that American scientists are helping them track the organism that has sickened thousands of children.

The government said it has contacted U.S. officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, for advice about treating the E. coli O157 bacteria.

Health Ministry officials said U.S. experts had more experience with the potent bacteria, discovered by Americans in 1982, which can cause kidney failure, even brain damage.

Seven people have died in Japan’s two-month outbreak, and some 8,500 people have fallen ill. It has been blamed on tainted school lunches.

``I would like to express sincere condolences to the children who lost their lives,″ Education Minister Mikio Okuda said in a joint news conference with the health minister and the chief government spokesman. ``It is unbearable for me to see any more food poisoning victims.″

The Health Ministry ordered a nationwide inspection of slaughterhouses. But tests on hundreds of food samples have yet to turn up the specific cause.

``There’s no established view, even among medical experts,″ about how to respond, a somber Health Minister Naoto Kan told reporters.

``At the moment, we still lack enough data to establish a unified policy,″ he said. ``I apologize for the worries that this has caused the Japanese people.″

E. coli O157 bacteria does not respond to antibiotics. In severe cases, doctors can merely treat the symptoms.

Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said American scientists have shared investigation tactics, and methods ``to fingerprint the organism so that strains from different places can be traced.″

The victims in Sakai, about 300 miles west of Tokyo, totaled 6,473. More than 400 people are still hospitalized.

Like many other Japanese public schools, Sakai’s schools relied on trucks without freezers to carry frozen meat, according to city official Yoshio Yamamoto.

But Dr. Takao Kosaka at National Children’s Hospital, which is treating one child sickened by O157, said that preventing further outbreaks was extremely difficult.

``You can’t do away with school lunches. It’s the Achilles’ heel of urban life, of convenient living,″ Kosaka said.

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