An E. coli outbreak in the southern Ontario town of Walkerton that killed five people and caused illness in hundreds began subsiding on Saturday, but the accusations and finger-pointing have just begun.
Rumors abound that the town's water supply showed traces of bacteria for weeks if not months. Investigators are focusing on why the local Public Utility Commission failed to immediately notify health authorities that water from town wells was contaminated. The town's general manager of utilities has acknowledged that he was aware of the problem as early as May 18 but didn't tell local authorities.
A local health official issued a boil order for the water supply on May 21 following reports from doctors of bloody diarrhea. The health officer said he had asked the utility commission three times if the water was clean, and was told it was.
On Friday, an official of a private laboratory that tests water said it detected traces of another bacteria in the Walkerton water as far back as January. Garry Palmateer of GAP EnviroMicrobial Services told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's National Magazine program the findings indicated surface water was entering the town wells.
Communities around about 100 kilometers (60 miles) away from Walkerton came under a boil order when their water supplies contained evidence of E. coli. No illness has been reported, and officials described the move as precautionary, saying they have yet to determine the strain of E. coli detected.
Residents attended the second funeral in two days, gathering at Sacred Heart church for the service for Edith Pearson, 83, a mother of five with 13 grandchildren who had been preparing to celebrate her 60th wedding anniversary.
Americans might remember an outbreak in Atlanta, Georgia in the summer of 1999 that killed 3 children and sickened many more after the children swallowed contaminated water at an Atlanta area water park. The problem in Canada however, appears to have sprung from the water supply, not recreational swimming.
This issue of Vidyya contains an article on the surveillance of E. coli and a patient hand out on keeping swimming areas free of bacterial pathogens. Most outbreaks of E. coli involve contaminated public or private swimming pools. It is important that individuals with diarrhea realize they risk spreading E. coli to other swimmers when they enter the water.