A child has died and another is seriously ill in an E. coli outbreak that may be associated with the Oxford county fair in Maine. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating this outbreak along with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and state veterinarians. Both children attended the fair last month. Public health officials are investigating the fair and taking samples from animal exhibits and other venus.
Little Colton Guay died after developing hemolytic uremic syndrome a week after attending the fair according to the Boston Globe. HUS is a serious complication of an E. coli infection that attacks the kidneys and can cause strokes, seizures, and kidney failure. The 21-month-old was in his stroller when the family visited the petting zoo at the fair.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that children have become seriously ill and died after visiting fairs. Five children were sickened in an E. coli outbreak in North Dakota this summer after attending the Red River Valley Fair. An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak last year at Minnesota county fairs sickened at least 13 people and was linked to Zerebko Zoo Tran, a traveling petting zoo. And in May, an E. coli outbreak at the Milk Makers Fest at the Northwest Fairgrounds in Whatcom County, Washington sickened at least 36 children.
Fairs and petting zoos are problematic because ruminant animals, such as goats and cows, carry E. coli bacteria in their intestines. The animals don’t get sick because they lack the genetic component that lets E. coli produce Shiga toxins. When the animals defecate, bacteria can get onto their hides and into the environment.
Then, when children pet the animals or walk around in the zoo or animal barn, they can easily pick up the bacteria. Little children will often put their hands into their mouths and the transfer is complete. Noted national food safety attorney Fred Pritzker said, “it’s terrible when an innocent visit to a fair or zoo results in tragedy.”
Most petting zoos and fairs have hand washing stations outside of the animal areas, with signs to remind people to make sure hands are washed before eating. But not all of those stations are always adequately supplied with soap and water, and sometimes there is runoff from rain and animal feces in the barns. It can just be too easy for the bacteria to get into a child’s system before a parent can do anything about it.
The symptoms of an E. coli infection include mild fever, nausea, vomiting, severe abdominal cramps, and diarrhea that may be bloody or watery. Most people get to a doctor when they have this type of infection, since symptoms are so severe. It’s important that this infection is properly diagnosed, because if antibiotics are given that increases the chances of developing HUS.
The symptoms of HUS include lethargy, pale skin and easy bruising, low or no urine output, skin rash, jaundice, and decreased consciousness. If a child ever develops these symptoms, he should be seen by a doctor immediately.