At least 24 people in New Brunswick are sick with symptoms of E. coli infection, including eight who are in hospital, but the source of the outbreak remains unclear.

Dr. Eilish Cleary, the province's chief medical officer of health, issued a statement on Friday confirming the E. coli outbreak.

She said 20 suspected cases have cropped up in Miramichi and two in Saint John and two in Bathurst.

E. coli cases in New Brunswick
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"To date, 24 cases of bloody diarrhea suspected to be caused by E. coli have been reported in the province, with 20 in Miramichi, two in Saint John and two in Bathurst," Cleary said in a statement.

"While laboratory testing continues, several cases have been confirmed as E. coli O157:H7, a severe strain that can sometimes cause serious illness."

In fact, it's the same strain that killed seven people in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000. It secretes a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness, high blood pressure and kidney damage.

Dr. Denis Allard, the deputy chief medical officer of health, told CBC News eight people have been hospitalized in connection with the bacteria.

"We do have a few of the cases that have been hospitalized, but we don't have reports of serious illness and certainly we haven't had any deaths," he said.

Search for source ongoing

Allard said the provincial government has not determined the source of the bacteria.

Authorities do have suspicions of the cause, based on some common food sources, he said. But he doesn't want to say anything definite yet, he said.

"It is common products at this point that people have eaten. I don't want to name one versus another one without any good evidence at this stage because it wouldn't be good for people to, for example, stop eating any of a particular food, just because they might be afraid that they may become sick. We really don't have good evidence." 

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been involved in testing some food products.

'The ones in Bathurst seem to have a link with the ones in Miramichi…But the ones in Saint John, for the time being, we're not sure that they're connected.' —Dr. Denis Allard, deputy chief medical officer of health

Allard said the department is still waiting on some of the lab tests.

Officials are also interviewing the people affected, trying to find a common link, said Allard.

"The ones in Bathurst seem to have a link with the ones in Miramichi in that they seem to have eaten in some of the same places. But the ones in Saint John, for the time being, we're not sure that they're connected," he said.

The fact that the source has not been pinpointed yet has some people in Miramichi worried.

"In a place like Miramichi where there's not a great big selection of grocery stores or sources of food," said Larry Lynch. "If it's coming from one place, it could be a problem."

The people affected by the bacteria range from those in their teens to mid-40s. The average age is 34, according to Allard.

Take precautions

New Brunswick normally reports about a dozen cases of E. coli each year.

"So the fact that we are investigating a cluster of 20 or so people with bloody diarrhea ... is fairly unusual, especially with most of them concentrated in a small area like the Miramichi," Allard said.

The department is advising anyone who is experiencing bloody diarrhea, which is a common symptom of E. coli 0157:H7, to see their health-care provider.

Other symptoms can include vomiting and stomach cramps. Unlike other illnesses, there is no fever, officials said.

The public health office is warning certain groups are particularly at risk of developing serious complications. Those groups of people include: pregnant women, young children, seniors and people with a weakened immune system, such as those on chemotherapy.

The health office is advising people to take several steps to avoid the bacteria:

  • 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, your hands and any counters or surfaces that have come in contact with food, especially meat and fish.