Yes, you read that correctly. Cholera and Canada are not words you read together with any frequency these days. In the 1800’s, Cholera killed at least 20,000. Today in my province we may see one case per year and even then, all cases have been found to be as a result of being exposed to cholera in a country where it is endemic.
Cholera is caused by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with fecal matter. The infection can result in nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and even lead to extreme dehydration and death. While there have not been any reported deaths, this is exactly what has happened in Canada’s most western province, British Columbia (BC). While not a huge number, at least four people have been infected with cholera last week. It is believed that the illness is tied to eating herring eggs that were harvested on the coast of Vancouver Island.
Herring and herring eggs have always been an important part of the BC fishery. On the coast, herring eggs are gathered using hemlock branches, seaweed or on kelp. They are nutritious and delicious and are part of an important industry for many coastal communities. For many, herring egg season is often highly anticipated with people waiting on the docks for their first taste of the season.
Unfortunately this year, shortly after spawning and collection of the eggs, a public warning was issued by health authorities after four confirmed cases of cholera on Vancouver Island linked to the consumption of herring eggs. The warning advises people not to eat herring eggs from French Creek to Qualicum Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island and as a result of the warning, the Department of Fisheries has issued an emergency closure of herring egg harvest in the area. The outbreak is associated only with eating herring eggs laid in marine environments such as those deposited on kelp, not herring eggs harvested directly from fish. The bacteria that causes cholera is not killed by freezing so people are being asked to have their herring eggs tested before eating.
Thankfully, no new cases of cholera have been identified, but this outbreak highlights the fact that our oceans, lakes and rivers are under pressure from our abuse and misuse. We need to pull up our socks and treat our resources with respect because if we don’t, they will bite back!