The Florida Department of Agriculture joined the search Wednesday for what caused an outbreak of a potentially fatal illness in Central Florida. All visited petting zoos at either the Central Florida Fair in Orlando or the Strawberry Festival in Plant City in early March. Officials suspect they may have contracted the disease from touching animals at the fairs, or possibly from eating tainted food.
The agency has taken samples from animals that were part of petting zoos at two festivals in Central Florida to determine if those animals caused the outbreak. A state spokeswoman said the tests are finding the presence of E. coli bacterium, but it’s still too early to say whether that’s what sickened more than a dozen people who attended the Strawberry festival in Plant City or the Central Florida Fair in Orlando.
The new cases identified Tuesday include an adult admitted to Orlando Regional Medical Center, as well as 18-month-old twins and an older sibling who were at Florida Hospital Orlando.
That brings to 17 the number of people infected by E. coli or the kidney disease resulting from it who also have recently attended one of two central Florida festivals where authorities think they contracted the illness. In addition to the 17 confirmed cases, authorities are also looking into 20 cases where they suspect infection, but haven’t confirmed it. The majority of the confirmed cases, 11, are in Orange County, which includes Orlando. A 12-year-old girl from Pasco County suspected of being infected has died.
The outbreak involves the bacterium E. coli O157:H7. About 8 percent of the people who are infected with that bacterium are later stricken with the kidney disease, known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. It can cause severe kidney problems, and can be fatal. The symptoms of HUS include lethargy and decreased urination. Doctors also watch for anemia and a falling platelet count — signs that the blood is breaking down. Long-term complications for those recovering from HUS can include pancreatitis, intestinal perforations and blockages of blood vessels in the brain and belly. Some may need to return to dialysis years later.
Dr. Mehul Dixit, a pediatric nephrologist with Florida Hospital Orlando, thinks the number of new cases will ebb because E. coli has an incubation period of a week before symptoms show up. Both fairs ended March 13. We are cautiously optimistic that the worst is behind us, he said.
State agriculture officials tested hundreds of animals last week for E. coli and sent 37 positive results to the state Department of Health for additional testing to see whether any match the strain infecting humans. Results could be ready this week.