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Woman's death caused by E. coli linked to Gort's
Interior Health confirmed Friday that an elderly woman's death was caused by an E. coli bacterium that has been linked to Gort's Gouda Cheese Farm.
The woman tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7, an infection which matched the same 'fingerprint' as that found in a total of 11 people who became ill, three from B.C. and eight from Alberta – all of whom ate cheese produced at Gort's Gouda Farm.
Saskatchewan health officials reported this afternoon that a man from the northern part of that province tested positive for the same E. coli bacterium.
Also earlier today, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency added another cheese to the recall – Gort's Mild Gouda, bringing the number of Gort's products removed from the market to 15.
In confirming E. coli 0157:H7 as the primary cause in the IH resident's death in August, medical officer Dr. Rob Parker said he was able to follow up with the family physician and go through her medical charts.
"That person did die primarily of their E. coli infection."
Elena Koutsavakis with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says inspectors have been at Gort's farm looking for harmful products as well as the root causes of the outbreak.
"We trace back and we trace forward," she says, noting officials inspect the farm to identity the product and then trace forward – analyze distribution as well as determine which products could be affected.
She says CFIA is acting on the Health Canada health risk issued early this week which was based on the number of people affected by the same bacterium.
"We know these products are a health risk and definitely have the potential to contain E. coli," she says. "Our food safety investigation is still ongoing and we have not yet identified the root cause of contamination."
Parker describes the process and time required to determine Gort's as the suspected source of the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak.
He says IH gets anywhere from 15 to 20 cases a year, more often in summer than winter.
"As soon as we get lab confirmation, we follow up the same or next day, asking people what they might have eaten, have they been around farm animals, travelling," Parker says, noting symptoms occur usually within two to four days but as long as a week after ingestion.
Getting an indication that E. coli is the culprit takes longer as it usually takes a protracted case of diarrhea or blood diarrhea to convince many people to go to their doctors.
Blood tests are taken and by the time the results are in, there could be a three-week delay. Asking people to remember what they ate that long ago often does not provide useful data.
Lab results that are positive for E. coli O.157 are sent to the BC Centre For Disease Control where they are fingerprinted - in a format that resembles a retail item barcode.
The "fingerprints" are shared across Canada with the provinces and the federal government watching for clusters of the same fingerprint.
"That's what happened here, some Alberta people matched up," Parker says. "Nobody immediately identified Gort's, but when asked late last week, they all said yes and by Tuesday morning it was clear we had to warn people."
In Interior Health the two remaining people who were infected with E. coli 0157:H7 were never hospitalized and are expected to have no long-term effects.
"If someone who has E. coli and doesn't get kidney failure, they're usually OK, with no other longterm consequences," he says.
While human beings are host to E. coli, which actually protects their bodies, 0157:H7 is a cattle strain that can cause disease in humans when ingested.
It is transmitted a number of ways through contaminated foods, including lettuce, spinach juice, and water as was the case in the Walkerton outbreak. As well, children have been known to pick up 0157:H7 by touching animals at petting zoos and not washing their hands properly afterwards.
E. coli can also be transmitted through food, if a person with the disease uses the washroom and then prepares food for others without washing their hands.
"As with any communicable germ, a portion of people might get infected after being exposed to the germ, but don't get sick," he says. "Maybe they've seen it before and have some sort of immunity. Another set of people might get some symptoms such as mild diarrhea and tummy upset."
"The classic presentation is a bit of fever, abdominal cramps and some diarrhea, within two to four days," Parker says. "In most healthy adults it will go away within a week, but even healthy adults can get secondary implications such a kidney failure."
In the case of children, who seem to be more prone to kidney failure, they may be left with chronic, long-term kidney failure.
"I don't think we know medically why an adult or child comes down with it, with no predisposing factors," Parker says. "As for any infection, for a few people, E. coli may take a turn for the worse, where the bloody diarrhea is so bad. This happens more with kids and frail seniors."