E. coli outbreak led to little health complications for Canadians: study

TORONTO – While Canadians just braved an international beef recall because of E. coli contamination, a new study is shedding light on how an outbreak of the bacteria in 2000 caused little effect on long-term health.

E. coli is commonly known for causing food poisoning, as it did in September as Alberta-based XL Foods grappled with a large-scale beef recall when the CFIA determined the bacteria had infected the product.

But within the country, E. coli O157:H7 is most notorious for a May 2000 incident when cow manure polluted water. The germs swept through Walkerton, Ont., infected more than 2,300 people in the community with severe gastroenteritis and killed seven people.

Since 2006, there have been 12 major E. coli outbreaks in North America and nearly 63,000 infections in the United States each year, according to scientists at the University of Western Ontario.

The bacteria causes stomach flu, but it’s also been linked to severe consequences, such as kidney damage and even high blood pressure. The medical community has concerns that those infected with E. coli could be at a higher risk of a heart attack or stroke years later.

Fact file: What is E. coli?

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E. coli illness not necessarily linked to higher risk of cardiovascular problems

These researchers sought to determine the long term risks of E. coli and 12 years later, returned with results that show that overall, those who became ill from the Walkerton contamination weren’t more vulnerable than the general population.

“Although we definitely want to avoid anyone getting infected in the first place, this new information is reassuring for those who develop an infection from E.coli,” the authors wrote in the study.

The team has previously noted a link between E. coli infection and chronic kidney disease or high blood pressure. But in that case, information was used from participants’ memory.

In this case, nearly 900 people who were infected from drinking the Walkerton water were studied via data from the Walkerton Health Study and large health care databases so information wasn’t limited to participant recall.

The scientists note that doctors’ “close scrutiny” of infected patients may have helped prevent any heart disease or long-term health complications. They took on extra screenings, and were monitored for hypertension and kidney disease.

Prescription medications to treat hypertension increased eight times among Walkerton patients compared to three times in the nearby communities, the study noted.

Last September and October, E. coli from contaminated XL Beef products was linked to at least 16 illnesses across Canada.

Timeline of events: 2012 E. coli outbreak and meat recall

The Western University study was published Monday afternoon in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Read the full findings here.