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Peel man has first suspected case of E. coli linked to deadly Europe outbreak

A tractor spreads destroyed cucumbers to fertilize a field on June 6, 2011 in Carquefou, France. AFP/GETTY IMAGES/Frank Perry.

An Ontario man who consumed local produce on a trip to Germany earlier this spring has Canada’s first suspected case of E. coli linked to the deadly outbreak in Europe.

Initial testing has confirmed the presence of the toxin compatible with the E. coli outbreak overseas, but it will take a few more days for further lab tests to confirm the case of the super strain, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said Monday.

“This is an adult male who recently returned from Germany and who was clearly exposed to this infection while there,” Dr. Arlene King said in an interview. “He’s doing well, and the follow-up is continuing with him.”

The man, who is from Peel Region west of Toronto, has been released from hospital, King said. She did not provide his age or any other details about him, citing privacy concerns.

King said the risk to the public is low and stressed that people should practise good hygiene, particularly after using the bathroom, handling animals and before preparing food or eating.

The European outbreak was initially attributed to Spanish cucumbers but officials later ruled them out. Suspicion was then cast on sprouts from Germany, but authorities backtracked again Monday, though they stopped short of giving sprouts a clean bill of health.

The strain that is responsible for the German outbreak has never been detected before by researchers and has various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing.

The bug has killed 22 people and sickened some 2,330 others in Europe. More than 630 of the victims are hospitalized with a rare, serious complication that can lead to kidney failure, but there’s no evidence the Canadian man suffered kidney damage, said King.

A Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson said no other E. coli cases have been reported elsewhere in the country. The U.S. has reported four suspected case linked to the European outbreak.

King expected more cases could surface in Canada. Travellers should be aware of symptoms such as bloody diarrhea, reduced urination, fatigue and paleness from anemia, she said.

Travellers to Germany should go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website and also get up to date information from local authorities during their trip, she added.

E. coli lives in the digestive tracts of both animals and humans, and “it’s prevalent all over the place, in terms of ground beef, surfaces, water, that type of thing,” said Mark Raizenne, director-general at the Centre for Food-borne, Environmental and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The bacteria can sometimes contaminate the surface of meat when animals are slaughtered. Raw fruits and vegetables can become contaminated in the field by improperly composted manure or tainted water. E. coli can also be transmitted through improper handling and preparation of food.

Raizenne also stressed the importance of hygiene.

“The really big issue is for people to have good personal hygiene, including washing hands thoroughly as frequently as possible,” Raizenne said.

King said Ontario’s health ministry is monitoring the situation in Germany and local health units have been advised to report any cases of E. coli with a travel history to Germany.

Raizenne said the Public Health Agency of Canada has also heightened its surveillance for E. coli cases.

“We are working with our provinces and territories through the public health network that we have, we’re keeping the public health community fully informed and the laboratories informed especially if there are any cases of E. coli… we would like to know about them,” said Raizenne.

German officials have come under criticism for their backtracking during the crisis with one American expert calling the investigation “a disaster” and accusing German authorities of casting suspicion on cucumbers and sprouts without firm data.

“This kind of wishy-washy response is incompetent,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The European Union’s health Commissioner defended German investigators, saying they were under extreme pressure as the crisis unfolded.

“We have to understand that people in certain situations do have a responsibility to inform their citizens as soon as possible of any danger that could exist to them,” John Dalli said in Brussels.

With files from Anne-Marie Tobin, The Associated Press

Statement from Dr. Arlene King, Chief Medical Officer of Health
Ontario has one suspect case of E. coli linked to the outbreak in Europe. This is the first suspect case in Canada.  This case has a travel history to Germany and consumed local products while in that country. While confirmatory lab results will take a few more days, initial testing has confirmed the presence of toxin compatible with the current E. coli outbreak in Europe.

I would like to assure Ontarians that we are following the E.coli outbreak in Europe very closely. Alerts have been issued to all health units advising them to immediately report to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care any cases of E. coli with a travel history to Germany.
The risk to Ontarians from this outbreak is very low. However, people should always follow standard measures to prevent any type of E. coli infection. This means carefully washing all fruits and vegetables to reduce contamination, and thoroughly cooking meats, such as ground beef, which will kill any bacteria.

People should always practice good hand hygiene, particularly after using the washroom, after handling animals, and before preparing foods or eating.  

If people have recently travelled to Germany and are experiencing diarrhea or severe tiredness, paleness and reduced urinary output following diarrhea, they should visit a health care practitioner and inform them of their recent travel to the country..

People who are planning a trip to Germany should visit the Public Health Agency of Canada travel advisory website before traveling and keep up to date on information from local health authorities during their trip.