Public prosecutor: Deaths of British tourists in Hurghada caused by E. coli exposure

The death of a British couple last month at a Hurghada hotel was caused by exposure to E. coli bacteria, according a Wednesday statement by Egypt’s Public Prosecutor Nabil Sadek.

John Cooper, 69, and his wife Susan Cooper, 63, died on August 21 while on holiday with their daughter at the Steigenberger Aqua Magic Hotel in Hurghada.

At 11:30 that morning a medical team was called to examine John Cooper after he showed signs of illness, the public prosecutor’s report detailed, including diarrhoea and vomiting. He did not respond to treatment and died an hour later in his room at the Steigenberger. Several hours later, Susan, who told her daughter she was feeling faint, was transported to a nearby hospital. Doctors were unable to resuscitate her, the report stated, and she was pronounced dead shortly after 5 pm.

According to the public prosecutor’s report, John Cooper’s exposure to E. coli bacteria caused acute intestinal dysentery, leading to a heart attack that caused his death, while Susan Cooper died of haemolytic-uremic syndrome, likely also to have been caused by exposure to E. coli.

Their daughter, Kelly Ormerod, rejected the findings and called for autopsies to be carried out in the UK. “It is unheard of that someone dies of E. coli in such a short space of time,” she told Sky News on Wednesday. “The Egyptians are looking for someone to blame and I don’t believe for one minute that caused their deaths,” she added, suggesting that authorities rushed to a conclusion to protect the tourist industry.

In an August 24 interview with Sky News, Ormerod had previously described her parents as being in “perfect health” before their holiday, stating her belief that “something suspicious” happened while they slept in their room.

On the same day the Red Sea Governorate and Egypt’s Tourism Ministry both denied any suspicion of foul play regarding the couple’s deaths.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Egypt’s Tourism Minister Rania al-Mashat described the public prosecutor’s report as “another step to help Susan and John Cooper’s family overcome this terrible loss.” Mashat said that the findings were determined by an international team of medical specialists following the autopsy “in order to answer their family’s questions concerning the causes of their deaths.”

On August 30, both Mashat and Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbuly met with Peter Fankhauser, the CEO of Thomas Cook, the London-based international travel agency that organized the Coopers’ holiday and which Susan Cooper was employee of before her death.

In the meeting, Madbuly stressed that the Egyptian government would seek to to identify the cause of death of the two British tourists and present the investigation’s findings transparently.

Thomas Cook issued a statement on Wednesday saying that it had yet to see the full forensic report conducted by Egyptian authorities and would “need time for [its] own experts to review it.”

This statement came one week after the travel agency released a statement announcing the discovery of “high levels” of E. coli and staphylococcus bacteria at the hotel, after the company sent independent hygiene and air quality specialists to conduct an inspection.

However, at the time, Thomas Cook said that the medical experts consulted by the agency did “not believe that these results shed any light on the still unexplained cause of death of Mr and Mrs Cooper,” and that it would wait for the result of the Egyptian autopsies before concluding that the bacteria was responsible for their deaths.

The experts consulted by Thomas Cook also established that the levels of carbon monoxide gas in the couple’s hotel room were normal, contradicting initial media reports which speculated that leakage from an air conditioning unit may have played a role in the Coopers’ deaths. The public prosecutor denied that there was any evidence of a gas leakage in the couple’s room on August 25.

Thomas Cook shared its findings with Egyptian authorities, according to its September 5 statement. The company plans to roll out a program of specialist hygiene assessments to any of its partner hotels reporting a higher than average occurrence of illness among guests. Financial compensation will also be offered by the agency to all tourists who fell ill at the Aqua Magic Hotel in August, the statement added.

300 customers were flown home by Thomas Cook following the incident, with some continuing to suffer symptoms of illness after arriving in the UK. In July, a Wales county court ordered the travel agency to pay £26,000 in compensation to another family who suffered gastric illness at the same hotel four weeks before the Coopers’ deaths.

Sally Khattab, marketing director at the Aqua Magic Hotel, previously told Mada Masr that bookings by Thomas Cook would be suspended until the forensic report was released. She said that the tour operator had not suspended its dealings with other Steigenberger branches in Hurghada, however.

The Coopers’ deaths came after a period of recovery in Egyptian tourism, which suffered from a number of blows in recent years, most notably the downing of the Russian Metrojet in October 2015, which exploded just minutes after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport. All 217 passengers and seven crew members were killed.

In comments to Mada Masr, Elhamy al-Zayat, former head of Egypt’s Federation of Chambers of Tourism, said that he does not believe this latest incident will impact the tourist industry, however.

Egyptian tourism has improved significantly over the last year, with 8.3 million tourists visiting in 2018 compared to 5.4 million tourists in 2016, when Egypt recorded its lowest number of visitors in at least a decade.

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