Canada: More will fall ill in E. coli outbreak, officials warn

After more than 50 customers sickened, health officials close fast-food outlet

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An E. coli outbreak that may have sickened more than 50 people who ate at an Ontario Harvey's restaurant will grow in the coming days, health officials warned yesterday as they scrambled to determine the source of the contamination and who else may be at risk.

Fourteen people were confirmed to have fallen ill from E. coli O157:H7 bacteria after eating at a North Bay Harvey's franchise. Another 38 illnesses linked to the same restaurant are under investigation to determine whether they are the result of E. coli contamination.

But health officials fear that number could climb significantly because it can take several days for people to feel ill after coming in contact with E. coli.

In addition, people who are ill could unwittingly infect family members and friends.

ting more cases," said Catherine Whiting, medical officer of health at the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit.

A total of 19 people have been hospitalized since the outbreak began on the weekend. Nine remained in hospital yesterday, but none have been admitted to the intensive-care unit, Dr. Whiting said. The people affected range in age from 9 to 84.

The public is still reeling from the listeriosis crisis involving deli meats and other products from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto. The listeriosis outbreak, which has been linked to 20 deaths and numerous cases of illness, has shaken consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply and caused many Canadians to question whether government and industry are taking enough steps to prevent future problems.

North Bay's health unit ordered the Harvey's restaurant on Algonquin Avenue to close this week once officials realized everyone who had fallen ill had eaten there. It's unclear how long it will remain closed, said Rick McNabb, president of Harvey's Canada.

"We need to determine exactly what happened here before we even consider opening the restaurant," Mr. McNabb said. "This is obviously a tough situation."

To determine the source of contamination, officials must collect detailed food histories from each victim and have samples tested for bacteria.

While all of the cases of illness have been linked to one restaurant, it is possible the outbreak is part of a larger problem that could affect people in other communities, said Doug Powell, associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University. For instance, a product such as lettuce, which is usually shipped to food retailers across a large area, could be the source of contamination.

"Just because it's a Harvey's, you can't assume it's the hamburger," Prof. Powell said. "It could be a fresh product, something that's not cooked and it could be distributed to other places."

It's important for health officials to figure out the source of the problem quickly so they can reduce the risk to others if necessary, he said.

However, Dr. Whiting said the health unit is facing a major challenge getting fast results because of the large volume of illnesses being reported.

While it's still too early to pinpoint a source of contamination, Dr. Whiting said investigators are focusing on the common foods consumed by all of the victims, including meat and toppings, such as lettuce.

The health unit is well aware that the outbreak could be linked to a larger problem, and that health officials are on high alert for similar patterns of illness across the country. "We would be looking for any clusters or cases of E. coli elsewhere in Ontario or the country ... ," Dr. Whiting said.



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