Local News

Nine E. coli cases confirmed; eight of those ill attended State Fair

Posted October 26, 2011 2:22 p.m. EDT
Updated October 26, 2011 11:01 p.m. EDT

— The Wake County health department said Wednesday that they have confirmed two additional cases of E. coli infection in an outbreak that has sent three children to intensive care units at area hospitals. 

Seven children and two adults have been infected with E. coli and eight of them attended the North Carolina State Fair, Sue Lynn Ledford, community health director for Wake County, said Wednesday. The victims range in age from two months to 62 years old.

The cause of their illness is not yet known, and Ledford emphasized that a visit to the fair is just one shared characteristic among those that got ill.

Ledford said it could take several days to pinpoint the source of the outbreak.

"It's like a puzzle, and you take all the different pieces of the puzzle, put them together, and then you come up with what is a conclusive finding," she said, adding that health officials are still at the very early stages of their investigation.

Five of the nine were hospitalized due to their illness. Three children remain in intensive care.

One boy, whose name was not released, is on dialysis at Duke University Hospital in Durham. Both of his kidneys are failing due to the infection.

Children, who are especially susceptible to E. coli infection, do typically recover, said state epidemiologist Megan Davies.

"The wonderful thing is that children are very resilient, much more resilient than adults are," Davies said.

Ledford said the county is working closely with state health officials to determine whether the cases are related and whether there are more cases in North Carolina. The eighth and ninth confirmed cases were from outside Wake County – an infected adult in Johnston County and an infected child in Cleveland County.  

State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said his department will do everything they can to assist public health officials with their investigation.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the patients and their families. We hope they make a full and quick recovery," Troxler said in a statement. "At this time, there is still very little information about the potential source. We hope that as science plays out, investigators will find answers."

E. coli is a serious and potentially lethal form of food poisoning caused by bacteria found in animal feces, according to the state department of Health and Human Services. People can become ill after coming in contact with animal feces or infected food or water. It can also be spread from person to person.

Symptoms include diarrhea, cramping, fever, nausea and vomiting and usually appear three or four days after exposure.

Ledford encouraged people who may have come in contact with E. coli to practice careful hand washing to prevent spreading the illness.

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention. Ledford also asked anyone who thinks they have E.coli to call the county's communicable disease hotline at 919-250-4462.

In 2004, more than 108 people reported having an E. coli infection that was linked to a petting zoo at the State Fair. State health officials confirmed 43 of those cases.

The parents of 14 children who became seriously ill sued the state, alleging that officials with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services knew about the E. coli risk but failed to warn fairgoers.

A state panel began deliberations two months ago over whether the families are owed compensation.

Ray Starling, an attorney for the Department of Agriculture, said in August that there is no way to completely eliminate the risk of E. coli at the fair.

"It is possible that today an outbreak could occur even with the precautions we are taking under the new state law," Starling said.

That law prevents children from walking around with animals and requires hand-washing stations at petting zoos.