05/04/2012 10:30 EDT | Updated 07/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Health officials investigate outbreak of E. coli in New Brunswick

FREDERICTON - Health officials in New Brunswick are searching for the source of an E. coli outbreak that they believe has left people ill in three communities.

Dr. Denis Allard, the deputy chief medical officer of health, said 24 cases of bloody diarrhea suspected to be caused by E. coli have been reported since officials became aware of the outbreak on Tuesday.

The first person began showing symptoms on April 23, Allard said, with 20 cases reported in Miramichi, two in Saint John and two in Bathurst.

"Some of them are related — either family or friends — and some of them have eaten in common places," Allard said in an interview Friday.

"But it doesn't point to just a single restaurant or a single food at this stage."

Allard said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is helping officials trace the source, but they haven't found it yet.

Eight cases have tested positive as E. coli O157, a severe strain that can cause serious illness and sometimes lead to kidney failure. That is also the same strain detected during the Walkerton, Ont., water tragedy in 2000 which killed seven people.

As a result, officials are urging anyone experiencing symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever to see a doctor.

Allard said 14 people have been hospitalized, eight of whom remain in hospital, but none have developed serious complications.

He said while the most recent case showed symptoms on Monday, it's too soon to say if the outbreak might be over.

New Brunswick gets an average of 12 cases of E. coli per year.

The Health Department is advising people to practice regular hand washing, washing of fruits and vegetables and properly cooking meat.