Sad Proof that E. Coli Isn't Just in Hamburgers

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Thanks to the infamous, less-than-stellar beef preparation by the folks who supplied the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain, most of us tend to think of E. coli as the hamburger disease. But as this weekís fatal outbreak of the illness in Walkerton, Ontario proves, there are other ways E. coli can foist itself on humans: Contaminated water, for example. Friday, Walkerton police launched a criminal probe into the cause of the local epidemic, which is blamed thus far for 5 deaths and hundreds of cases of illness. Doctors worry the death toll has not yet peaked; several infected children are on dialysis and in extremely critical condition. The bacteria, which travels through the digestive system when ingested, can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools and kidney failure, and in the most severe cases, death. As with many illnesses, children and the elderly are most at risk.

Predictably, officials in this farming community are horrified by the outbreak — and their lousy mood was recently exacerbated by revelations that the cityís water authorities knew back on May 18 that their supply was contaminated but did nothing to stop its distribution. No one knows how the bacteria got into the water, although some speculate recent rains could have pushed manure-contaminated floodwaters into drinking reservoirs. Police are also examining the filtering and chlorinating systems at local water stations.

Since water can also carry the bacteria with alarming ease, Walkertonís disastrous encounter with the illness serves as a terrifying nudge into a state of vigilance. In the case of water-borne outbreaks, people become infected after coming into contact with swimming or drinking water thatís been contaminated with sewage and/or human or animal fecal matter. With that delightful image in mind, doctors recommend taking the following precautions around water: Avoid swallowing lake or pool water when swimming; do everyone a favor and donít swim when you are having gastrointestinal issues; keep children who wear diapers out of the water. Everybody, with the notable exception of a few frustrated E. coli bacteria, will thank you for your diligence.