DURHAM — North Carolina failed to properly warn the public and reduce the health risks associated with a petting zoo at the 2004 State Fair, say attorneys representing 14 children who became ill after exposure to E. coli bacteria from animal feces.
Opening arguments began Monday in a case brought by families who say they were unaware of the risks of allowing their children into a petting zoo with farm animals. The families' individual suits were consolidated for a hearing before an administrative law judge. The hearing is likely to continue through this week.
An outbreak of E. coli illnesses was traced to the Crossroads Petting Zoo at the fair in 2004. In all, 108 children reportedly suffered serious diarrhea, and 15 of those came down with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a life-threatening complication that occurs in about 10 percent of those infected with E. coli O157:H7, a strain of the bacteria that was apparently transmitted from feces of goats and sheep at the petting zoo. Young children are especially at risk of developing the illness.
Attorneys for the state argue that North Carolina agriculture officials took reasonable precautions recommended at the time, including hand sanitizer stations and signs that directed the public to wash their hands after touching animals.
But attorneys for the families contend that the state Department of Agriculture was negligent and did not implement the most basic safety steps recommended by several national organizations, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The lawyers say fairgoers didn't notice the warning signs and that the sanitizer was inadequate to kill the bacteria. Small children crowded in among the animals and, at times, fell down into hay contaminated with manure.
"They all knew it was deadly, and they knew the most vulnerable people in society were these little children," said attorney David Kirby, referring to state agriculture officials overseeing the State Fair. "They knew that when the fair opened; they had known it for years before this fair opened."
From the fair to 'death's door'
Kirby represents the family of Aedin Gray of Carrboro, now 8, who was hospitalized for 36 days in fall 2004 after visiting the petting zoo. She suffered severe damage to her pancreas and kidneys and is now on an insulin pump and blood pressure medication. Kirby said that the Gray family would never have taken their 2-year-old child to the petting zoo if they had known of the danger.
"They went to the fair for three hours," Kirby said. "They went home and two weeks later they were sitting in a hospital bed in Chapel Hill with a little girl who was on death's door."
Attorneys for the families say that the owner of the petting zoo was not educated about the risks involved and that the state did not train vendors on safety procedures.
Assistant Attorney General Tina Hlabse, who represents the state, argued that warning signs were posted around the petting zoo and that hand sanitizer was readily available at the site. The vendor had employees who constantly removed animal feces from the exhibit.
"The state did what it was supposed to do based on the knowledge it had at that time," she said. She pointed out that there were no federal laws against children mingling with farm animals at petting zoos. Any animals on exhibit at the fair had to have certification of veterinarian exams and were observed by staff twice daily, she said.
Federal recommendations urged hand washing with soap and water, the plaintiffs' attorneys argued, and at times, the exhibit ran out of hand sanitizer. But Hlabse said the fair had numerous bathrooms with soap and running water and that hand sanitizer was, in 2004, an accepted method of preventing disease transmission in animal exhibits.
"There's no way to prevent, to absolutely eradicate, the risk of E. coli ," Hlabse said. "You can't do it."
Reports and memos
Monday's testimony centered around reports and memos before the 2004 fair about how to reduce risks of animal-to-human disease transmission. Cited were a 2002 state agriculture vulnerability assessment, a 2001 report from the CDC and a June 2004 compendium circulated by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians.
The 2004 report recommended a host of procedures for animal contact venues, including educating the public and staff on the dangers; prohibiting food, beverages and smoking; regular cleaning of the exhibit; close supervision of children and special warning to high-risk populations, including pregnant women and children under 5.
Dr. David Marshall, the state veterinarian, testified he received the compendium by email from another state official, who wrote that it was "a nice succinct document" that could have "an impact on some protocols for the State Fair."
During cross-examination, Marshall acknowledged that no state officials did anything with the document in 2004. Marshall said he regarded the document as having good information but considered it a general overview containing precautions the state was mostly already taking. He also said the focus of public health officials at that time was bioterrorism and foot-and-mouth disease among animals.
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