Eleven children under the age of 10 and four adults over the age of 40 have been admitted to area hospitals one of the most dangerous complications of an E. coli infection, a kidney ailment called hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS. All of them attended either the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City or the Central Florida Fair in Orlando. Both events ran from March 3-13, and many of the children had contact with farm animals at petting zoos or other exhibits.
Investigators are focusing on E. coli – O157:H7, which has been linked to similar outbreaks in other states. It can be spread by contaminated food or beverages as well as through contact with animal manure that harbors the bacteria.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that officials are looking for “common activities that would bridge both of those events,” said Dr. John Agwunobi, secretary of the Florida Department of Health. “It is way too early to point to any single activity, whether it be a petting zoo or anything else, and say this is the cause.”
Four children are improving and listed Friday as stable or fair, and one youngster who was rated in good condition could go home as early as this weekend. Two others were listed as serious, and three remain in critical condition, including Shannon Smowton. The little 6-yr-old girl from Winter Garden went to the Florida Strawberry Festival with her mom and sister, MacKenzie, on March 11. Both children fed the goats, pigs and lambs at the festival, where they also snacked on ice cream and popcorn.
Kathie Smowton said they sat on the ground for a little bit around a sweet-natured calf with big brown eyes. “You just don’t imagine taking your kids to a fair on a Friday and then ending up here,” she said, sitting in the conference room at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Women and Children. Shannon fell ill last week with diarrhea and bad abdominal cramps, and test results came back positive for E. coli O157:H7.
“It was horrific,” Greg Smowton, an Orange County firefighter and paramedic, said about the first couple of days of Shannon’s hospital stay. They’ve seen their daughter hooked up to tubes and fighting for her life, lapsing in and out of consciousness even before doctors hooked her up to the respirator and dialysis machine when her kidneys stopped working.
They said doctors have told them that Shannon has a good chance of beating her illness. In the meantime, handmade greeting cards from her kindergarten classmates adorn the walls of her hospital room while she lays under a pink blanket, her golden-blond hair pulled off her face in tiny red ribbons, a stuffed toy lamb tucked under one arm and a ventilator tube taped to her mouth.
She hasn’t been fully conscious since last weekend.