Infectious Disease Outbreaks Related to Drinking Water in Canada, 1974–2001
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BACKGROUND: Recent public attention on drinking water supplies in the aftermath of waterborne infection outbreaks in Walkerton and North Battleford raises questions about safety. We analyzed information on waterborne outbreaks occurring between 1974 and 2001 in order to identify apparent trends, review the current status of monitoring and reporting, and gain a better understanding of the impact of drinking water quality on public health and disease burden. METHODS: Data from outbreak investigations, published and unpublished, were categorized by the type of drinking water provider and were assessed to be definitely, probably or possibly waterborne in nature. RESULTS: The final data set consisted of 288 outbreaks of disease linked to a drinking water source. There were 99 outbreaks in public water systems, 138 outbreaks in semi-public systems and 51 outbreaks in private systems. The main known causative agents of waterborne disease outbreaks were (in descending frequency of occurrence) Giardia, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Norwalk-like viruses, Salmonella and hepatitis A virus. SUMMARY: We found that severe weather, close proximity to animal populations, treatment system malfunctions, poor maintenance and treatment practices were associated with the reported disease outbreaks resulting from drinking water supplies. However, issues related to the accuracy, co-ordination, compatibility and detail of data exist. A systematic and coordinated national surveillance system for comparison purposes, trend identification and policy development is needed so that future waterborne disease outbreaks can be avoided.