A study funded by a Canadian biopharmaceutical company estimates that the combined health-care and productivity costs to Canada from verotoxigenic E. coli-related (VTEC) infections total about $404 million per year. The peer-reviewed study, to be published in the Journal of Food Protection, indicates that 93 percent of VTEC infections are caused by the E. coli O157 strain. VTEC strains include shiga toxin producing and enterohemorrhagic E. coli, which can infect humans after ingestion of contaminated food or water. In serious cases, E. coli can cause life-threatening complications, particularly kidney disease, or even death. Principal study author is Dr. Paul Sockett, an expert in foodborne diseases and former director of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Foodborne, Waterborne and Zoonotic Infections Division. He presented the study’s findings Wednesday at the Public Health Ontario Vaccine Sciences Symposium in Toronto. Funding the study was Bioniche Life Sciences, Inc., of Belleville, ON. “Reduction of E. coli O157 shedding by cattle offers an opportunity to significantly reduce public health risk,” Sockett was quoted as saying at the symposium. He said that public health, agriculture, food processing and retail, and national and local government agencies responsible for tracking human illness or animal or product contamination were the four key sectors impacted by the issue. Bioniche has licenses in the U.K. and Sweden for use of its trademarked Econiche® vaccine on cattle. The vaccine helps block the attachment of E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in cattle intestines, according to Rick Culbert, president of the firm’s One Health division. Cattle do not contract E. coli infection themselves. “If you know the illness, this is the logical way to attack it,” Culbert said. “We know it comes from cattle, we saw people become sick from eating spinach here in 2006, then the well water here in Ontario was contaminated, and we’ve seen all kinds of beef recalls where hamburger in the midst of processing becomes contaminated.” Human exposure to E. coli O157:H7 is increasingly associated with contaminated fruit, vegetables, unpasteurized milk and fruit juice, potable and recreational water, and from direct contact with animals at fairs and petting zoos. The study also noted that the distribution of human VTEC infections in Canada was much higher in provinces where people had proximity to higher cattle densities. For example, the incidence was as high as 29.1 cases per 100,000 population in south-central Alberta, while the nationwide average was 2.8 per 100,000 during the same year. Alberta is the top cattle-producing province in Canada. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves Econiche® for use in this country, Culbert said that Bioniche’s goal is not to sell its vaccine directly to cattle producers but make it available to them for free from veterinarians, who would get it at no cost from public health agencies. “We know it’s a tough sell. Change does not come easy,” he said. “The pipe dream ideally would be a national vaccination program, some way to subsidize the vaccine so farmers could use it at no expense to themselves.” Because there are so many other human health threats today, human illness due to VTEC infection is a relatively lower priority, Culbert said, adding, “I think there’s receptivity. There’s just no sense of urgency.” Susan Goebel, Bioniche’s E. coli project manager, said that, in conversations with the public health community, talking about vaccinating cattle for E. coli “falls outside the box.” In the U.S., Pfizer Animal Health is the exclusive distributor for an E. coli vaccine for cattle called E. Coli Bacterial Extract vaccine with SRP technology. That vaccine is made by Minnesota-based Epitopix, LLC.