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Ontario calls in federal experts to help with outbreak

The federal government has sent a “disease detective” to help Ontario deal with a dangerous outbreak of C. difficile that has hit at least 10 hospitals.

OTTAWA — The federal government has sent a “disease detective” to help Ontario deal with a dangerous outbreak of C. difficile that has hit at least 10 hospitals.

The Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed Thursday it sent a field epidemiologist to the Niagara area at the request of the Ontario government, which is struggling to contain the spread of the potentially deadly bug.

The bug has claimed at least 17 lives since the Niagara outbreak at the end of May.

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews played down the request for federal help, saying it’s not unusual to have an epidemiologist called in and that the crisis had not escalated.

“There is nothing unusual happening. This happens in hospitals across the province from time to time,” she said in Toronto.

“It’s not desirable. We’re fighting very hard to prevent it from happening. We track it so closely now that we see it earlier than we ever have seen it before and take appropriate steps.”

The federal government’s help came as Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said there were now 10 declared outbreaks in hospitals and one suspected.

The hospitals are in Guelph, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Napanee, Toronto, Welland, Orangeville, Hamilton and Mississauga.

An outbreak, Williams said, could be as few as two cases in a ward, and there are regularly four to six outbreaks happening in the province’s hospitals.

The dispatch of the federal epidemiologist was in response to a request from the Ontario government, acting on behalf of the Niagara Region Public Health Department and Niagara Health System, said agency spokesman Robert Cyrenne.

“Field epidemiologists are disease detectives,” he said. “They are invited on site to study diseases in order to better understand and control them.”

The federal scientist will help regional health authorities define, find and interview cases of C. difficile, Cyrenne added. Then the expert will co-ordinate specimens, determine why the disease is spreading, and recommend measures for control.

Cyrenne did not comment directly on what the arrival of federal help means about the seriousness of the outbreak. Rather, he said the Public Health Agency provides field epidemiologists “regularly” upon request.

There’s more the federal agency could do if required.

On request, the Public Health Agency can collaborate with provincial and infection-control experts to put in place prevention programs. The agency can also provide laboratory support to help with diagnosis and strain analysis.

The hospital-acquired disease causes severe diarrhoea in vulnerable patients who have taken antibiotics. C. difficile is typically spread in hospitals through contact with bodily fluids.

Experts say outbreaks of the contagious bug can usually be avoided if staff recognize the signs early and take measures such as hand-washing to prevent the bacteria from spreading.

Patients are usually placed in isolation.

At least 17 people — mainly elderly — have died in the Niagara region since the outbreak was declared May 28.

Niagara Health said Thursday that a third patient with serious health issues died at the hospital in Welland.

About 100 protesters took to the streets Wednesday to complain about the state of cleanliness at regional health centres.

The Ontario government has sent teams of experts to work with affected hospitals.