On the 11th anniversary of what Canadians refer to as the Walkerton Tragedy, the Ontario government announced it has paid more than $72 million ($74.4 million US) in compensation to victims of an E. coli outbreak and their families.

In May 2000, more than 2,300 became ill and seven people died after E. coli  O157:H7 in manure from a small herd of cows contaminated the water supply in Walkerton, a town of about 4,800 residents in southwestern Ontario.

Two brothers who ran the local water utility later pleaded guilty to criminal charges; a government investigation determined the water supply had not been adequately chlorinated. 

According to the Walkerton Report, the overall estimated number of cases associated with the outbreak was over 2,300. Of the 1,346 reported cases, 1,304 were considered to be primary (exposed to Walkerton municipal water), 39 were secondary (exposed to a primary case and not to Walkerton municipal water) and 3 were unclassified.

Sixty-five patients were admitted to hospital and of these 27 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Thirty-six percent developed post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

A 10-year study of 1,977 Walkerton residents, published in November in the British Medical Journal, concluded that those who were sickened in 2000 experienced an increased risk for hypertension, renal impairment and cardiovascular disease.

“Our findings underline the need for following up individual cases of food or water poisoning by E.coli O157:H7 to prevent or reduce silent progressive vascular injury,” the researchers concluded.  “These long term consequences emphasize the importance of ensuring safe food and water supply as a cornerstone of public health.”