The 14 (possibly 15) children suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)-related kidney failure in Florida are only a small part of the more than 100 children nationally who have been infected in recent years. Investigators said they were focusing on a strain of dangerous bacteria as the possible cause of the disease, and focusing on petting zoos as the likely culprits.
There is no specific evidence linking the disease with the animals at the petting zoos to make a definitive conclusion, but there appears to be a connection. The dangerous strain of E. coli has not shown up in some cases, and health department officials said it is possible that those who were originally infected with the strain no longer would test positive because it may have passed entirely through their systems, partially as a result of the diarrhea that comes with it.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there have been 25 such outbreaks involving farm animals at public events dating back to the 1990s. They have occurred in Washington and Pennsylvania and most recently in North Carolina, where more than 100 people were infected.
Florida has no law regulating petting zoos. Some states such as Pennsylvania passed regulations after similar problems. The Pennsylvania law requires petting zoos and other animal exhibitions to provide hand-washing facilities. The CDC now recommends posting signs warning visitors they are entering an animal area and advising them to wash their hands before leaving. It advocates plenty of hand-washing stations and making certain the stations are easy to use for children. It also requires animal exhibitions to inform the public about the types of diseases that animals can pass on to humans.
Tom Umiker, owner of Plant City’s Ag-Venture Farm Shows, who had animals at both the Central Florida Fair and the Florida Strawberry Festival, recently told UPI News that while owners of animal exhibits rely on the fairgrounds for the hand-washing stations, they also sell hand wipes. He said he has noticed a recent increase in the number of stations available and the signs promoting safety practices.
He said his animals have periodic tests for tuberculosis and brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can be passed from cattle to humans. He said he has asked veterinarians about routine testing for E. coli but was told that was not practical because it was so common in animals. Thirty-seven of the animals tested positive for E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, and those samples were passed on to the Florida Health Department for further tests for the O157:H7 strain that is related to the kidney disease.
The agriculture inspectors have tested all of the animals involved, except for six goats that were already sold, said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the department. They were located through paper work and are being tested Monday. Investigators have begun interviewing food vendors from the two fairs to see whether contaminated food or beverages might also be involved.