It was the 22nd annual Milk Makers Festival in Whatcom County, Washington, and 25 Lynden High School students helped set up a hay maze to go with a petting zoo, scavenger hunt and activities for younger kids to learn about raising calves and milking cows. When more than 1,300 first graders and their chaperones arrived for the three-day fest at Northwest Fairgrounds late last month, they also were joined by invisible pathogens from animal feces that caused an outbreak of potentially fatal E. coli infections, including a dreaded complication known as HUS E. coli.
Lawyers for the childrens’ families, scientists from the Whatcom County Health Department, state epidemiologists — even experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — are now trying to determine what went wrong. At least 36 children have been sickened and some hospitalized. While most were first-graders, the event host — Whatcom County Dairy Women — has confirmed that E. coli stomach illness also hit at least one of the high school volunteers.
“An obvious focal point is the petting zoo and any associated animal exhibits,” said E. coli lawyer Fred Pritzker, who represents families and individuals sickened in food poisoning outbreaks and petting zoo outbreaks. “If you’re an event manager or school official, you have to go the extra mile with safeguards to protect the kids.”
According to the Whatcom County Dairy Women Facebook page, the organization has received continuing comments about whether hand-washing stations were adequate. “We want everyone to know that all the children were required to wash their hands with anti-bacterial soap and water in addition to using hand sanitizers. There are continuing comments here about hand sanitizers not killing E.coli. Soap and water AND hand alcohol based hand sanitizers were used at the Milk Makers Fest,” the Facebook entry said.
Officials repeatedly have said that first-graders from all Whatcom County public schools attended the event. The nine districts are Bellingham School District, Blaine School District, Concrete School District, Ferndale School District, Lynden School District, Meridian School District, Nooksack Valley School District, Mount Baker School District and Sedro Woolley School District. Many of the districts have alerted parents to the outbreak and Bellingham officials confirmed that first-graders attended the Milk Makers Fest from the following elementary schools: Parkview, Birchwood, Sunnyland and Cordata. Additionally, the Blaine School District has publicly confirmed that one of the illnesses in the outbreak has been confirmed at Blaine Primary School.
If your child attended the Milk Makers Fest and developed diarrhea before May 1, please take your child to your regular health care provider for evaluation and testing. Doctors and nurses in the greater Bellingham, Ferndale, Lynden, Blaine areas and beyond have been alerted to the outbreak and will be ready to test for the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7.