Nov 12, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – Health officials in North Carolina recently announced that the petting zoo at the Cleveland County Fair was the initial source of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in an outbreak that sickened 106 people and led to the death of a2-year-old boy.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services(NCDHHS) said in a Nov 9 statement that tests by the state lab and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed two E coli strains from patients that matched environmental samples taken from the fairgrounds.
Officials added that heavy rains during the fair may have spread contamination from the petting zoo to surrounding areas. Laura Gerald, MD, MPH, state health director, said in the statement that the investigation's goal wasn't to assign blame, but to prevent the problem from happening again.
The outbreak began shortly after the fair, held Sep 27through Oct 7. Among the 106 sick patients were 65 children. Thirteen people were hospitalized. On Oct 19 fair officials announced that they would cancel all events at the fairgrounds until public health officials completed their investigation.
News of the petting zoo link in North Carolina comes 2 weeks after health officials in Washington state's Cowlitz County said that a petting zoo at a pumpkin patch in Longview was suspected in at least four E coli O157:H7 infections. All of the patients were children who visited the pumpkin patch and its petting zoo, according to an Oct 30 statement from the Cowlitz County Health and Human Services Department (CCHHSD). An earlier statement from the department said one of the children was hospitalized for several days but was recovering.
In the wake of the outbreak, the owners voluntarily closed the patch and petting zoo on Oct 29. The department urged petting zoo visitors to immediately wash their hands after contact with animals and to avoid animal contact if the facility doesn't have a hand-washing station with running water. It warned that alcohol-based sanitizers are not an adequate substitute for hand washing after such contact, but should be used as a temporary measure until hands can be thoroughly washed.
North Carolina's E coli outbreak is the second linked to a fair over the past year. It occurred despite more stringent measures that were required by a 2004 state law enacted after an outbreak at the North Carolina State Fair, which was also linked to a petting zoo. That outbreak sickened 108 people, about half of them young children.
In November 2011 the NCDHHS tied an E coli outbreak that sickened 26 people to a building where sheep, goats, and pigs were housed and exhibited at the North Carolina State Fair.
Nov 9 NCDHHS press release
Oct 28, 2011 NCDHHS press release