People attending fairs all across the country look forward to happy memories of carnival rides and cute farm animals. They don’t think about sanitation nor the possibility of E. coli infection – which happens at fairs more often than people tend to think.
One of the country’s first large fair outbreaks came in the fall of 2000, when E. coli at a suburban Philadelphia petting farm infected 16 children. Health officials suspected an additional 45 probable cases. Outbreaks at county fairs in Ohio and Wisconsin sickened 84 in the summer of 2001. In August 2002, 82 people, mostly children, fell ill after attending a county fair in Oregon, and 108 people got sick after visiting the North Carolina state fair’s petting zoos last fall.
The outbreaks are blamed on the bacterium E. coli O157:H7, which typically causes bloody diarrhea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that this strain of E. coli is responsible for an average of 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the United States each year. And now, the bacteria have shown up in fairs in Florida – namely the Central Florida Fair in Orlando, the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City and the Florida State Fair in Tampa.
At least 22 people, almost all children, fell seriously ill after visiting one of the three fairs in Florida in the past two months. State health officials are investigating 35 more cases. Victims may have had different things to eat and drink, but almost all of them touched the chicks, sheep, goats and calves in the petting zoos, which officials are convinced is the source of the bacteria. About eight per cent of people infected with E. coli O157:H7 are later stricken with the potentially fatal kidney disease known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS.
People who visit petting zoos must take safety into their own hands – literally. What often happens is that a toddler will pet a sheep or goat, then stick his fingers in his mouth, as children often do. Livestock on farms and at fairs are not regularly tested for E. coli O157:H7 because inspectors are looking only for illnesses that could harm the animals themselves. Infection with the bacteria is not uncommon among livestock, and an animal with E. coli O157:H7 shows no symptoms and does not get sick.
If officials confirm the outbreak began in the zoos, where animals’ feces can carry the potentially lethal bacteria, this would be the latest episode in what appears to be a growing threat to public health.

“It’s seems to be an increasing phenomenon,” said Jeff Bender, an assistant professor of veterinary public health at the University of Minnesota. “As a result, we need to get some recommendations or guidelines out there. The single most important thing in prevention is handwashing,” Bender said. He added that only handwashing with soap and water or a sanitizing gel will work.