State Fair livestock building source of E. coli outbreak
Posted November 10, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — 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.