Petting zoo was E. coli source at Cleveland fair

Rainy weather also was a factor, spreading soil and the bacteria, officials announce

jdepriest@charlotteobserver.comNovember 9, 2012 

— The petting zoo at the Cleveland County Fair was the focal point of the E. coli outbreak that killed one person and sickened 105 others last month, local and state health officials announced Friday.

Weather also was a factor, officials said.

During an afternoon news conference, officials said a study conducted after the outbreak showed that people who visited the fair’s petting zoo were more likely to have gotten sick – especially those who fed animals at the petting zoo.

But the disease was spread by rainy weather, said Carl Williams, North Carolina’s state public health veterinarian. Williams said rain spread soil to areas away from the petting zoo, widening the bacteria’s impact.

“It may be that widespread contamination developed,” added Jennifer MacFarquhar, a communicable disease specialist with the N.C. Division of Public Health.

During the news conference at the Cleveland County Health Department, officials announced they were establishing a committee to study ways of preventing another such outbreak.

“We hope to use the results of the investigation to set the course for the future,” said Evelyn Foust, branch chief of the N.C. Division of Public Health.

Officials said the two types of E. coli bacteria found in Cleveland County Fair victims were spread from fecal material to human mouths. The assumption is that victims picked up the bacteria by touching the animals, then ingested the bacteria when they ate food at the fair.

However, authorities said there are still unanswered questions.

“We do not know specifically how the bacteria was spread from animals to people,” Foust said. “We are proposing that a group come together to develop a plan that will limit potential outbreaks in the future.

“Our goal ... is to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Foust said the committee of local and state health officials will organize and meet “as rapidly as possible” to get recommendations in place.

Calvin Hastings, director of the fair, also announced there will be no animal exhibits at the fair until the study has been concluded and any possible policy changes put in place.

“Hopefully, we can continue with animal exhibits,” he said. “But that will depend on the results of the study.”

All public events at the fairgrounds, including a popular fall pottery show, have been canceled pending completion of the public health investigation.

Cases of E. coli began appearing one day after the fair ended on Oct. 7. One victim, 2-year-old Gage Lefevers of Gastonia, died from the bacteria. Ten more people were hospitalized. A 5-year-old victim, Hannah Roberts, was admitted to Carolinas Medical Center on Thursday night – two weeks after being released from the hospital. Family members say some of the girl’s symptoms reappeared.

MacFarquhar said 62 percent of the victims were younger than 18.

“I’m a parent,” Foust said. “My heart goes out to the parents affected by this.”

Local health department personnel in Cleveland, Gaston, Lincoln, Catawba and Rutherford counties conducted 266 interviews in the weeks following the outbreak.

Meanwhile, state health officials collected environmental samples from 47 sites at the county fairground, Williams said. Officials confirmed two specific strains of E. coli in cases from the outbreak that were matched to the samples.

Williams said by and large the two strains were found in the area of the petting zoo.

He said results pointing to the petting zoo were given to state public health officials in Tennessee, home of the ranch that brought the petting zoo to the Cleveland County Fair. North Carolina officials made it clear on Friday they were not assigning blame for the outbreak.

“There’s no evidence anybody has done anything wrong,” Foust said.

After an E. coli outbreak in 2004 at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh, the state commissioned a Duke University study aimed at minimizing risk. Using recommendations from the study, legislators passed a law in 2006 that requires permits for animal-contact exhibits.

Called “Aden’s Law,” it requires such precautions as hand-washing stations, fencing and signs that educate fairgoers about the risks of touching animals. It also calls for listing the hand-to-mouth items that can’t be brought into animal-contact exhibits: baby bottles, pacifiers, drink cups and food.

After an outbreak at last year’s N.C. State Fair was isolated to a livestock building that houses animals, officials moved to widen the separation between humans and animals in those “noncontact” buildings.

The state has 45 sanctioned agriculture fairs, and Williams said on Friday that most have petting zoos. But even with “Aden’s Law” in place, he said there’s no guarantee E. coli won’t be transmitted.

Williams said there’s no evidence “Aden’s Law” wasn’t followed at the Cleveland County Fair. The current investigation is an opportunity to see what is “unique and different” about this situation, Williams said.

The Cherryville mother of a 12-year-old E. coli victim welcomed the formation of a committee to take a more detailed look.

Beth McNair’s son, Jordan, spent 35 days at Levine Children’s Hospital. He was released on Thursday.

“I think they need to come up with some preventative measures,” McNair said. “Unless you’ve been through this, you don’t know how serious it is.”

Staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed.

DePriest: 704-868-7745

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