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School Principal Convicted In 1990 Deaths From Bacteria

July 30, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ As Japan struggles to stop a widespread outbreak of the deadly O157 E. coli bacteria, a court today convicted a kindergarten principal in the deaths of two children who died of the bacteria in 1990.

Haruo Atsuzawa, 69, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence for failing to clean up contaminated well water at his school in central Japan despite the warnings of health officials.

Two children died and about 50 were sickened after drinking the bacteria-tainted water. The deaths, in Urawa outside Tokyo, are believed to be the first attributed to the O157 strain of E. coli in Japan.

The current outbreak _ blamed on contaminated school lunches _ has killed seven and sickened more than 8,700 people over the past few months, most of them children in Sakai, a city 300 miles west of Tokyo.

Unable to pinpoint the specific food that contained the bacteria, Sakai officials have pleaded for federal assistance as they face mounting criticism that their slow initial reaction helped the outbreak spread.

Two victims have died of the highly contagious bacteria in Sakai, more than 6,000 people have been sickened in the city, and more than 300 people remain hospitalized.

City officials in Sakai have picked through thousands of school lunches, disinfected the city’s schools and offered free treatment for people infected with the bacteria.

In its ruling on the 1990 case, the Urawa District Court said Atsuzawa’s professional negligence was unforgivable, but it also criticized local health officials for not taking further steps to force the kindergarten clean up the water.

E. coli is spread through water as well as human contact. Symptoms include dehydration, stomach pains and bloody diarrhea. In severe cases, the infection leads to kidney failure and brain damage.

Also today, organizers of a children’s conference in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan, said Singapore is refusing to allow its delegation to attend out of fear that its children would be infected with the bacteria.

Conference official Chikako Matsuo said the conference hosts about 400 11 year olds from more than 40 Asian countries for one-week stays with families in Fukuoka. No other countries have cancelled, she said.

Update hourly