Woman certain petting zoo caused grandsons' illness
Port Orange grandmother Ava Wheatley doesn't need to see the results of laboratory tests on petting zoo animals to confirm that's how her two grandchildren picked up an infection that has hospitalized them in serious condition.
She said she knows because the two stricken brothers -- ages 2 and 4 -- petted animals at the Central Florida Fair but their older sister didn't and she's not sick.
"She was scared to death of them (the animals) -- thank God," Wheatley said.
The two Port Orange brothers are the only confirmed Volusia County cases of the potentially fatal E. coli infection. Of the 14 confirmed cases in Orange, Seminole, Volusia, Collier and Pasco counties, nine are still hospitalized.
Health officials suspect the outbreak, which may have resulted in the Wednesday death of a 12-year-old Pasco County girl, began at two popular festivals. The Pasco County girl is among seven others suspected but not confirmed of having the E.coli infection.
State officials said that tests are incomplete on the animals of three petting zoos at the Plant City Strawberry Festival or the Central Florida Fair in Orlando earlier this month. State Health Secretary John Agwunobi, M.D., said the disease also could have been picked up at a dairy milking exhibition, undercooked food or simply playing in the hay.
"If you can think of all the different ways that humans can come in contact with animal waste at these events you have a long list of entirely viable sources of infection," Agwunobi said.
But Wheatley scoffs at the idea that it could have been anything but the petting zoo: "The three kids ate everything the same, the same everything else" except the petting zoo.
The St. Petersburg Times reported Sunday that the Pasco County girl had visited the Strawberry Festival shortly before her death.
She is among the suspected cases that state officials are investigating. In the girl's case, state officials are waiting on the results from the Pasco County medical examiner to see if the girl had been infected with the particular bacterium, E.coli O157:H7, that sometimes results in the kidney disease, known as hemolytic uremic syndrome.
Last year, there were about 70,000 cases of the disease that is fatal to 2 percent to 8 percent. But animals that carry the disease often appear the picture of health -- as all the suspect petting zoo animals did when they were tested, said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
"It's important that people know that (this disease) is not an animal problem but a washing-your-hands problem," Compton said. "Animals can test negative for this bacteria one day and then positive the next."
Meanwhile, Wheatley is longing to hear her two grandsons call for "Gamma" as they usually do when she walks into a room. The two are undergoing kidney dialysis at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children & Women. The older one was taken there Thursday after he was admitted to Halifax Medical Center March 22. And his brother went to the Orlando hospital Friday, following his admission to Halifax on Wednesday.
"They are very lethargic, they are rundown," Wheatley said, shaking her head. It's quite a change from when the pair are running around, playing with their toy trucks, coloring and playing ball. "When they are healthy, you have your hands full."
Now, she's thrilled when either of the boys is able to take a few sips of Gatorade.
"It's tearing my heart out to see them like this," she said. "People ask me what they can do, I tell them, 'Pray for them.' "