Eastern E. coli cases connected, but not yet to food

Fifteen cases of E. coli O157:H7-related illness in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario have been linked to each other and probably came from the same place — but federal health officials aren’t yet confirming any food link.

Provincial health officials said Wednesday that a number of new cases of O157:H7 infection are now confirmed to be linked to each other, with six in New Brunswick, five in Nova Scotia and four in Ontario.

None of the 15 people sickened by this specific strain of bacteria have died. Five have been hospitalized and one is confirmed to have had hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a kidney-damaging and potentially fatal complication of O157:H7 poisoning.

The people in the 15 confirmed cases range in age from four to 83 years old. Of the 15 cases, the onset of illness was reported in eight cases on Dec. 23.

"The illness investigation is being led by public health authorities, and to date, there has been no confirmed link between the illnesses and a food source," the Canadian Food Inspection Agency added in a separate statement Wednesday.

"Based on the ongoing epidemiological and microbiological investigations conducted to date, it is likely that the people involved all got sick from the same source," the Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement Tuesday. "We don’t know what the source of the illness is, but that investigation is continuing."

Specimens from another five Nova Scotia cases have been sent to federal facilities in Winnipeg for further testing to see if they come from the same subtype of 0157:H7, that province said Wednesday.

The confirmation of the link between the cases "tells us we are on the right track in our investigation," Dr. Frank Atherton, Nova Scotia’s deputy chief medical officer of health, said in Wednesday’s release.

"This is a multi-provincial outbreak and we have yet to identify a common source, but continue to work with our local, jurisdictional and national partners."

Symptoms of E. coli infection mainly involve the gut and can vary from person to person, but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fever (generally below 38.5 C). Symptoms usually last five to seven days.

Around five to 10 per cent of those who get sick from E. coli O157:H7 overall — and about 15 per cent of young children and the elderly — develop HUS from the infection.

To prevent and reduce the spread of 0157:H7, provincial officials urged the public to

  • wash and peel all raw vegetables and fruits before eating;
  • properly cook all meat and check internal meat temperature with a meat thermometer;
  • wash hands, cutting boards and other surfaces that come into contact with raw meat;
  • prevent contact between cooked foods and raw poultry and other meats; and
  • make sure dairy products consumed are pasteurized.

People wanting to avoid catching or passing on O157 should also wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers, New Brunswick officials said.

Related stories:
E. coli probe into frozen burgers hits dead end, Dec. 25, 2012
XL’s Brooks beef plant reopens, Oct. 23, 2012

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