Fair and Petting Zoo Safety

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E. coli sickens seven people

At least seven people, most of them children, have been infected by E. coli in an outbreak that may point to the State Fair's petting zoo.

State health officials alerted local physicians, health departments and hospitals this weekend to be on the lookout for more cases. Doctors already are awaiting test results in several other suspected cases. Health officials are also urging parents to keep sick children at home.

E. coli -- a type of bacteria found in the intestines of otherwise healthy livestock -- are spread through feces and can cause severe nausea and bloody diarrhea. An infection can be particularly harmful to young children.

Nearly all of the confirmed cases are children, state officials said. Of the confirmed cases, two are in Wake County, two are in Lee County, one is in Wilson County and two are in Mecklenburg County.

State Fair officials have tried to alert the owners of the petting zoo animals, R.W. Commerford and Sons of Connecticut, of a potential problem. These animals -- goats, lambs, pigs and a few zebras and antelope -- travel the fair circuit up and down the East Coast, State Fair manager Wesley Wyatt said.

"We're anxious to get to the bottom of this," said Britt Cobb, state agriculture commissioner.

Concluding that the E. coli originated in the petting zoo is "a little premature until all the cases are put together," Cobb said, "but we are monitoring it very closely."

The outbreak surfaced Friday when Wake County Health Department officials learned of two 5-year-olds and a 21-month-old suffering from classic E. coli symptoms. The 5-year-olds are now confirmed cases; the infant's illness is still under investigation. All three remained in area hospitals Sunday.

"To have three cases pop up in a couple days is suspicious," said Gibbie Harris, Wake County community health director. None of the families knew each other; their children had not interacted.

"After the investigative process, what's obvious is that they've all three been to the State Fair and to the petting zoo," Harris said. "Normally, we don't think of animals, especially cute cuddly ones, as being a source of infection."

Infected animals typically show no signs of illness.

Fairgoers did not need to touch manure to be exposed to the bacteria. The animals can spread bacteria by rubbing against or jumping up on a human.

Hand-washing often falls by the wayside during the fair, despite fair officials' efforts to supply extra sink stations and to post signs reminding people to wash after petting the animals, Harris said.

Betsy Maness of Pinehurst is haunted by her 13-year-old daughter's exchange with a particularly friendly goat at the petting zoo. The goat kept nibbling at her daughter Katie's name badge, and Katie kept pushing him away. Maness, who brings her family to the fair every year, thought nothing of the exchange at the time. She said she forgot to make Katie wash her hands before she ate a hot dog later that afternoon.

Katie has been in the hospital since Thursday, where she is hooked to IVs. Maness said her daughter has lost nearly seven pounds this week. All signs point to E. coli.

"After we heard the news of the outbreak, the pediatrician said, 'The puzzle fits,' " Maness said.

State health officials suspect many sick children and parents will connect the dots now that the news is out.

Symptoms show up between two and eight days after exposure; most fall ill within three to four days. The State Fair ended Oct. 24.

"If it is the State Fair, at this point, the exposure window has passed, and any chance for preventive measures has passed," said Carol Schriber, spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Services. "It's wait and see."

E. coli infects at least twelve
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