Published: Nov 9, 2004
Modified: Nov 9, 2004 6:01 AM

E. coli traced to fair
No link made to exact attraction

By SARAH AVERY,
Staff Writer

The N.C. State Fair is the source of an outbreak of E. coli infections that has sickened as many as 112 people, state health officials announced Monday.

But the exact exhibit or vendor where the bacteria originated is not known, although two petting zoos are under consideration, as well as food vendors.

The bacterium, which causes severe diarrhea and can lead to kidney damage, is prevalent in healthy farm animals such as cows, sheep and goats, and is transmitted to people through contact with their feces. Most often, however, E. coli infections are caused by tainted food.

"There are other avenues of exposure" besides the petting zoos, said Dr. Jeffrey Engel, state epidemiologist. He said state health investigators will now zero in on where, exactly, the exposure occurred.

Britt Cobb, the state agriculture commissioner, said the fair has worked with investigators to trace the source of the infection. Some fair patrons have noted that hand-washing kiosks at one of the petting zoo exhibits required a 25-cent deposit. But other stations were free.

"The sanitizing stations the State Fair provided were totally free," Cobb said. He said people were also able to wash their hands in the bathrooms of the Jim Graham building, where livestock exhibits were held, and throughout the fair in portable toilets.

Dr. Steve Cline, chief of the epidemiology section in the state Division of Public Health, said that if the petting zoos are found to be the source, there's little that can be done about the animals because the bacteria are so common in the livestock.

"It's human behavior associated with the petting zoos," Cline said, noting that small children, in particular, put their hands to their mouths without first washing.

Since the fair closed Oct. 24 and the first E. coli cases came to light, the state has investigated a mounting number of suspected infections. Of the 112 cases being analyzed, 35 have been confirmed as E. coli infections. Thirty-three of those with confirmed cases had been to the State Fair in October.

Seventy-five percent of the people infected are children, and 11 of them have developed a serious complication in which the kidneys shut down. No one has died, and Engel said the children appear to be recovering.

State health officials said the objective now is to keep additional infections from occurring between people. They said they have been working with day-care centers to press the need for careful hand washing after diaper changes. So far, no cases have resulted from exposures in schools or day cares.

Staff writer Sarah Avery can be reached at 829-4882 or savery@newsobserver.com.

Copyright 2004, The News & Observer Publishing Company