Thirteen people in New Brunswick are infected with the same strain of E. coli that killed seven people in Walkerton, Ont. in 2000, provincial health officials have confirmed.
And 11 other cases are likely to be the same potentially deadly strain — O157:H7, said Dr. Denis Allard, the province's deputy chief medical officer for health.
Five people remain in hospital, but so far, no one has had severe complications, he said.
"We don't know why it seems to be milder, at least right now," said Allard. "It could be that if we had hundreds of cases, as they had in Walkerton, perhaps we could start to see some complications."
Meanwhile, the source of the infectious bacteria that multiplies quickly remains unclear.
"We continue to be concerned about whatever the source might be right now. We're doing our best to try and find it as soon as possible and remove it from access." said Allard.
Eleven of the confirmed cases are in Miramichi, while the other two are in Bathurst, he said.
All of the people infected are between the ages of 15 and 55.
"These people are healthier and their immune system is healthier" than the people who were affected in Walkerton, he said.
"Therefore, either they need a larger dose of the bacteria to start experiencing severe symptoms, or else their immune system is protecting them to a some degree."
There are also two cases of E. coli in Saint John, but those people are affected with a different strain, said Allard.
At least 26 people have shown symptoms of E. coli since last week.
Food source suspected
Health officials are still trying to determine the cause of the outbreak in the province, but Allard believes the source is likely food.
The province has a list of common foods and approximately 27 restaurants where those infected ate days prior to getting sick, he said. All of the restaurants are in the Miramichi area. "I'm not at liberty to mention any names."
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency currently has agents in Miramichi, testing food samples, he said. Those test results are expected within the next few days.
During the Walkerton outbreak, the water supply had been contaminated.
The water in Miramichi has been ruled out as the source of the E. coli, said Allard.
Until the source has been identified, health officials are reminding people to take precautions.
Patricia Gary is one person heeding that advice. "It's a terrible thing and people are very, very ill," she said. "I think people underestimate the seriousness of it."
Steps to avoid the bacteria include:
- regular hand washing, especially after using the washroom and when preparing food
- washing fruits and vegetables
- properly cooking meat
- using warm soapy water or a chlorine-based or other approved sanitizers to clean knives, cutting boards, utensils, and any counters or surfaces that have come in contact with food, especially meat and fish
The strain — O157:H7 — is known to multiply quickly, and wreaks havoc in the human intestine once it's ingested. It secretes a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness, high blood pressure and kidney damage.
The main symptom for this strain of E. coli is bloody diarrhea, but it can also cause vomiting and stomach cramps. Unlike other illnesses, there is no fever.
At least 14 people have been hospitalized since the outbreak began.