Investigations start as three die in e-coli outbreak

An e-coli outbreak in southern Ontario has claimed three lives. Health officials say an infant and an 82-year-old woman have died. The age of the third victim has not been released by doctors.

The outbreak has infected about 400 people in the Walkerton area. It poses a serious risk for the elderly and the very young. Several people are in hospital in critical condition.

Dr. Murray McQuigge says that more than 200 people have visited hospital emergency rooms in the area. He calls the outbreak an epidemic, the worst-ever outbreak of e-coli in Canada. McQuigge says the community's drinking water is not safe.

Some of those most severely affected were airlifted to a hospital in nearby London for treatment. Twenty people are in hospital.

Mayor David Thomson spoke to reporters Wednesday afternoon, offering his condolences to the families of the three people killed. He also assured the public the water will not be turned back on until it is completely clear and clean.

Taking action

Parents of children who are five years of age or younger are being asked to bring them in for tests, even if they show no signs of being sick.

Schools and daycare centres are closed in the town. The hospital in Walkerton has called in extra staff to handle the numbers of people phoning in and the numbers who are showing up sick.

E-coli symptoms include fever, severe cramping, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

It can take from two to 10 days for symptoms to appear in people who are infected. It takes about a week to recover.

Health officials are advising people in the Walkerton area to boil drinking water for at least five minutes, or to drink bottled water. Anything made with water, such as baby formula or orange juice, should be thrown out.

The province's environment ministry is being called in to test the water supply, which is drawn from deep wells.

Officials aren't sure how the outbreak started. There was extensive flooding in the area during a heavy rainstorm nearly two weeks ago. It is possible that sewage leaked into the wells.

Some have been asking why there seemed to be a delay between the time people started getting sick and the time the warning was circulated.

Thomson says the municipality started flushing the water system at first sign of a problem, as far as he knows.

E-coli can be fatal in about three per cent of cases, and causes kidney damage in 10 per cent of people who become infected.