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Better communication and availability of information, legacies of the tainted-water tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., helped improve the response to an E. coli outbreak linked to a Harvey's restaurant in northern Ontario, health and civic officials said Tuesday.

However, the current outbreak also demonstrates that gaps in Canada's food-safety net persist.

One change since the deadly waterborne events in Walkerton in May of 2000, where seven died and 2,500 were sickened, has been to beef up the province's electronic database that helps public health professionals report and track cases.

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"The electronic backbone - the integrated public health information system - is a much more up-to-date, higher-tech system than what was in place in Walkerton," said Dr. Charles Gardner, president of the Association of Local Public Health Agencies.

"We proactively know when to, and in fact do, notify the health units across the province when we're dealing with something of this magnitude."

In North Bay, Ont., health authorities reported Tuesday the number of confirmed E. coli cases stemming from a Harvey's restaurant had risen to 35, seven more than a day earlier.

The outbreak comprised a total of 158 suspected and confirmed cases covering eight regional health units. Almost all patients - ranging from a baby to the very elderly - were recovering at home.

Health officials ordered the popular Harvey's closed Oct. 12 after linking it to the outbreak. The province responded by alerting health units across the province.

"As a system, we've responded well," Dr. Gardner said.

"The communication on this has been strong and allowed us to put out the alert and identify cases quickly, and to also allow the health unit in North Bay to identify the likely source of the outbreak and close that down as a source."

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However, what exactly was contaminated remained unknown.

"It's a complex puzzle," said Dr. Catherine Whiting, in charge of the North Bay Parry Sound health unit.

Food seized from tables at the restaurant when it was shut down tested clean, Dr. Whiting said.

The federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is now trying to pinpoint the contamination source, is responsible for, among other things, monitoring risks at slaughterhouses and processing plants that ship meat nationally.

However, provincial governments, municipalities or regional health authorities are responsible for inspecting restaurants and food services.

"There is always a challenge in having enough resources to do everything we need to be doing," Dr. Gardner said.

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Still, E. coli is carried in fecal matter and it is up to food establishments to ensure proper hygiene in their premises, Dr. Whiting said.

Health units do offer food-handler training, but attendance is voluntary.

The Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors is urging provinces to mandate the on-site presence of someone with the training in food establishments, but that hasn't happened.

In Walkerton, Mayor Charlie Bagnato said he had fielded calls from North Bay's mayor and others from the city.

"I told them they're in very good hands now," Mr. Bagnato said.

In particular, Mr. Bagnato said, the results of a seven-year health study in Walkerton means a wealth of information is now available to doctors and victims in North Bay about needed screening and treatment.

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"It's not nearly the catastrophe that we had here [but]they're in a lot better situation because of that public health study," Mr. Bagnato said.

The study wrapped up just last week as the new outbreak was expanding, an "astounding" coincidence, Mr. Bagnato said.



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