Helen Branswell of the Canadian Press reports that public health officials on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border will be able to trace outbreaks of nasty foodborne pathogens like E. coli with greater ease from now on, thanks to an international agreement that will be signed Friday.
Electronic databases maintained by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control will be formally linked, allowing investigators in both countries to chase down more rapidly and efficiently outbreaks of foodborne illness that can often be hard to spot because they occur over multiple states and provinces.
“A lot of our food systems are very highly integrated. So what’s happening in Canada can be happening in the U.S. and what’s happening in the U.S. can be happening in Canada,” Dr. Frank Plummer, scientific director of the agency’s National Microbiology Laboratory, explained Thursday.
The head of the CDC’s foodborne division said given the links between the countries and their food supplies, such co-operation makes sense.
“The foods go back and forth. The animals go back and forth. And the people go back and forth,” Dr. Robert Tauxe said from Atlanta.
In a ceremony at the agency’s Winnipeg headquarters, Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh and U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins will sign a formal agreement linking PulseNet Canada with the database after which it is named, the CDC’s PulseNet.
Additional PulseNet systems are in the works for Latin America, Europe and countries of the Pacific Rim, extending the investigative capacities of the linked databases.
“Some of our foodborne problems come from Mexico or Latin America and ultimately we’d like to be able to see what they’re seeing,” Plummer said.
The linking of the databases means laboratories across the two countries will be able to share genetic fingerprints of pathogens responsible for foodborne illnesses in real time. That should ensure quicker identification of emerging problems and the potential to recall tainted food faster, reducing the number of people who are exposed and become ill.
“That’s one of the key contributions of a system like PulseNet,” Tauxe said.
The benefits of such information sharing were evident Thursday, when public health officials in Yukon received confirmation that an American tourist who’d been treated for E. coli 0157:H7 wasn’t infected in Whitehorse, but before she left her southern U.S. home thousands of kilometres away.
The genetic fingerprint of the pathogen showed she was actually part of an outbreak involving people in more than eight U.S. states. Investigators there have discovered the source of the infection, contaminated hamburger meat. U.S. agricultural officials have traced the source of the meat and are considering whether a recall is needed.
The ease with which the investigation into the woman’s illness was conducted proves how handy an integrated database system is, said Dr. Bryce Larke, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health.
“I think it’s a very, very useful tool and this case has shown that very clearly,” Larke said from Whitehorse.
The scientist who pioneered the idea at the CDC said the system is “shrinking North America” – at least as far as foodborne pathogens are concerned.
“The micro-organisms don’t recognize our borders,” said Bala Swaminathan, who heads up the PulseNet network.
“It’s a very powerful tool for picking up clusters of disease that may be very diffuse – one case here, one case there. By state or province alone it doesn’t amount to much. But when you look at a broader level, it becomes significant and gives us a starting point for early investigation.”
The U.S. database tracks four pathogens – E. coli, salmonella, shigella and listeria. Currently PulseNet Canada tracks only E. coli, but will be adding the others, Plummer said.