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State Fair livestock building source of E. coli outbreak

Posted November 10, 2011

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— An E. coli outbreak that caused 27 people to become sick has been linked to a building that hosted livestock competitions and housed sheep, goats and pigs at the North Carolina State Fair, state agriculture and health officials said Thursday.

The confirmed infections were likely transmitted by animal contact in the Kelley Building, state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies said, but investigators haven't identified any specific animal or breed in the outbreak.

Investigators pinpointed the building as the source through a case-control study of those who were sick and 87 fairgoers who were not. The participants answered a 21-page questionnaire about their fair activities.

No other exhibits, food or activities were linked to the infections, Davies said.

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, who oversees the State Fair, said he is putting together a task force to develop measures to lessen the risk for future fairgoers.

"From the beginning of this investigation, we have been focused on finding answers about why these illnesses occurred," Troxler said. "Using the information gathered by our public health partners, we can begin to assess whether additional safeguards can be put in place. Our goal is to put on the safest fair we can."

State officials said two people remained hospitalized from the outbreak Thursday, but they were not sure if that number included Hunter Tallent, 2, of Charlotte, who was released Thursday afternoon.

Tallent's grandfather said Thursday he wasn't sure how the boy contracted E. coli, because he was in a stroller and never came in contact with any animals.

His parents said they did spend time in the Kelly Building at the fair. 

"He was in the stroller. It may have picked it up and later (he) touched the stroller," his mother, Lindsay Tallent, said. 

Davies said the bacteria can come from many sources.

"Even if a child is in a stroller, they can be reaching out their hands, putting their hands down, picking up bits of dirt, shavings or ticket stubs," she said.

Davies said that the strain of E. coli that causes the illness occurs in the intestines of ruminant animals – those with four stomachs – including cattle, goats and sheep.

"These bacteria are shed in the animal's feces, so if it is on the animal itself or surfaces around the animal that someone touches, the bacteria can be transmitted to that person," she said.

The Kelley Building, which is used for storage the rest of the year, is cleaned and disinfected between each livestock show at the fair, Troxler said.

"This is not a petting zoo. Animals in this building were never intended for human contact," he said.

After a 2004 E. coli outbreak in which more than 100 people got sick was linked to a petting zoo at the fair, state officials installed sanitation stations throughout the fairgrounds and erected double fencing to keep people out of bedding areas in the petting zoo.

"People come to the State Fair with a certain amount of trust," Troxler said. "We certainly want to keep that trust with the public and be very proactive in doing anything we can do."

Peter Cowen, who teaches epidemiology and public health at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said there is always a risk of E. coli, and every year it causes deaths across the country.

The key to cutting the risk of getting E. coli is handwashing, he said.

“You can’t slip, otherwise you could end up exposed,” Cowen said.

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  • Sherlock Nov 11, 2011

    Time for the sate to get sued for not doing thier job....You can blame me I work for the gover' and she is always right....

  • quaten Nov 11, 2011

    The problem with city beaurcrats hosting a farm fair is that city beaurcrats expect all the livestock to be somehow pre-sanitized.

    Maybe the fair would be somewhat safer if they used sanitary plastic replica's of real animals.

    Clearly, only farm folk seem to be able to avoid e-coli. Maybe they have better hand washing ethics.

  • pster32 Nov 11, 2011

    So No one learned from the lesson from Last year and at other location that the Fair was located? Over 100 last year. Hmm, so we can blame all this on the animals but that will not assist the family and their hospital bills.

  • RM24 Nov 11, 2011

    Y'all who are cruelly criticizing the parents...I guarantee the children did wash their hands. PEOPLEWATCHER

    Guarantee huh? So you were with these parents and kids when they did it huh? And if animals are the issue then why do the kids showing/handling/raising these animals get E-coli?

  • bgreen Nov 11, 2011

    Oh, terror! E. Coli in the goat, pig, and sheep building at the NC State Fair. The horror. We must sterilize all the livestock immediately. What are a bunch of dirty farm animals doing at an agricultural exhibit/judging anyway. Why are there still germs in the world? I thought the FDA, CDC, EPA, FBI, CIA and the DMV had made us safe from everything.

    Gee, I'm so exasperated and disillusioned.

  • Deb1003 Nov 11, 2011

    My son came down w/ E.coli after attending the state fair 8 yrs ago, when he was 7yrs old. We didn't go back until this year. I just told him to stay away from the petting "zoo" and the live animal barns. From the reports of this years E.coli outbreak, I'll continue to tell my children to JUST STAY AWAY FROM THE PETTING ZOO AND ALL LIVE ANIMALS.

  • LovemyPirates Nov 11, 2011

    dcatz - the E. coli that is sometimes found on plant matter comes from animal or human waste contamination. It's cross contamination to plants from animals. That said, the animals being shown at the State Fair are farm animals and not pets. Young children should probably not be taken into these areas. If you choose to take a young child into the barns, then don't bring a stroller or wagon anywhere near the barns. The wheels of both pick up animal fecal matter which can then be carried onto faces and mouths. So, it isn't just about washing hands. Also, do not let your children try to touch or "pet" these animals. Don't allow children to "run free" in the barns. Even though you may see them being groomed and led around on what looks like pet leashes they aren't domesticated pets. A fully grown steer, cow or lamb or goat can kill a child if kicked.

  • PeopleWatcher Nov 11, 2011

    Y'all who are cruelly criticizing the parents...I guarantee the children did wash their hands. Sometimes hand washing is not entirely effective to present the spread of the e.coli. What if that hand touched an article of clothing before the washing and that article of clothing touched the hand after the washing. It can be transferred more easily that some of you all appararently want to believe.

  • dcatz Nov 11, 2011

    Spare me the holier-than-thou vegetarian rhetoric. It is just as possible to get E. coli from vegetables and other plant foods as it is from animals.

  • Patrick Henry Nov 11, 2011

    "How about making it MANDATORY to use hand sanitizers as they leave the buildings, or wash hands to prevent such things.. Takes a few seconds to use santizer,,few more to wash hands..that would benefit all. Desiderata"

    That would be great. give the government something else to mandate and control. How about we just use common sense?

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