The E. coli outbreak in Washington County, Oregon that may be related to livestock at the Washington County fair is a reminder to all that attending county and state fairs can be dangerous. Officials are investigating “several” illnesses that occurred after those sickened attended the fair.
In the past few years, there have been E. coli outbreaks linked to livestock exhibits and petting zoos at fairs. And now that we are getting into autumn, the big state fairs are set to begin.
Livestock exhibits and areas where ruminant animals are gathered are the hot spots for these outbreaks. Cows, goats, sheep, deer, and elk are ruminant animals; they can carry E. coli bacteria in their intestines. The bacteria comes out in their poop, which can get everywhere, including on the animals’ coats, their feet, the pens, and surrounding areas.
So how do you protect yourself and your family? If you plan on attending a fair and are going to animal exhibits and barns, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of an E.coli illness.
First, don’t take strollers into animal barns. The stroller wheels can pick up feces and you can carry it home. Carry small children into these barns and don’t let them walk around. If your child is in a back carrier, be sure they aren’t touching things behind your back. Don’t let children touch the animals. Because young kids put their hands in their mouths so quickly and so often, it’s almost impossible to prevent any bacterial transmission.
Never carry food or drink into an animal barn or exhibit. Don’t bring in sippy cups, pacifiers, bottles, teething toys, or anything a child may put in his mouth. E. coli bacteria can become airborne.
After you leave the animal area, make sure everyone washes their hands well with soap and clean running water. Supervise children’s hand washing and make sure they scrub under their fingernails and between the fingers. Make sure hands are washed even if you don’t touch any animals.
These exhibits are supposed to have hand washing facilities and hand sanitizers available, depending on the state and its laws. If you notice that the facilities are not fully supplied, or are dirty or have problems, alert an official. It’s a good idea to bring your own sanitizers and even your own soap to these events.
In general, make sure that you wash your hands well before eating food at the fair. Wash hands after playing a game, going on a ride, or visiting an exhibit. Washing your hands should take a full 20 seconds, with lots of soap and water. Dry your hands thoroughly on clean paper towels after washing; this also helps remove bacteria.
Take a close look at the food vendors at the fair too. All should have a health department permit, look clean and sanitary, and employees should use gloves. No food vendor should be located anywhere near an animal exhibit.
If you or someone in your family gets sick after visiting a fair, see your doctor. E. coli infections can be very serious and can develop into HUS, which can be fatal, if not properly treated. This illness is a reportable disease and a public health concern.
The symptoms of an E. coli infection include diarrhea that may be bloody and/or watery, a mild fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. The symptoms usually begin three or four days after exposure.