As if critical shortages of flu vaccine weren’t enough, now North Carolinians have a new public health risk to worry about: E. coli and petting zoos.
The numbers vary from day to day, but officials are investigating more than 100 possible cases of that infection, with more than 35 cases confirmed so far. Almost all those victims visited the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh in October, and half are children under age 5. One is a 21-month-old Mecklenburg County girl, who is recovering.
State epidemiologists believe they have traced the infections to the fair’s two petting zoos. If that is the case, this outbreak will be one of a series related to petting zoos from Oregon to Ohio to Pennsylvania reported since 1998.
The question is how to respond.
E. coli is a bacteria usually spread through undercooked meat contaminated with animal feces or contaminated water. But it can be spread by contact with animals — hence the petting zoo connection, and the associated public health risk.

The infection is serious, particularly for the very young and very old. Dehydration can be deadly. And several children in North Carolina have been hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious complication that can cause kidney failure, seizures and death.
Petting zoos are a big thing these days at community events and private kiddie parties. It’s not practical to ban them. Yet what to do?
Testing animals before they’re exhibited is useless. Livestock shed the bacteria sporadically, and it doesn’t make them ill.
Thorough hand-washing is an effective defense. But you can’t design a law or regulation that will keep children’s soiled hands out of their mouths.
Heightened public education — and parental vigilance — seem to be the only effective measures. On that score, North Carolina can do better.
Signs at the state fair advised visitors to wash their hands after contact with animals. Restrooms had soap and hot water. But the petting zoos had stations equipped only with hand sanitizing products, which health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control note are far less effective at removing the bacteria.
Public health officials have a year before the next county and state fair season to rethink practices and guidelines. They can start by requiring petting zoos to have hot water and soap close at hand. In the meantime, parents might harken back to grandma’s old advice: Keep your fingers out of your mouth.