Dr. John O. Agwunobi, Florida State Health Department Director, has zeroed in on a single petting zoo as the likely source of the mysterious bacterial infection that has sickened nearly two dozen people across Florida. The AgVenture Farm Tour is the only common link for five victims so far who have tested positive for a specific strain of bacteria known as Escherichia coli O157:H7.
The focus shifted almost entirely to AgVenture after one of the five patients turned out to have attended the Florida State Fair in Tampa in February — and not the Strawberry Festival in Plant City or the fair in Orange County that other victims visited in March. AgVenture ran petting zoos at all three fairs, negating vendors as possible sources for the bacteria. State inspection records showed that no single food vendor attended all the events, spokeswoman Meg Shannon said.
The announcement marks a turning point in the effort to pin down the cause of the illnesses, which have mainly struck young children. Researchers must now perform testing on AgVenture animals, none of which has yet tested positive for the specific strain of E. coli that has made people sick.
Families of infected children are not waiting for results of the testing on the AgVenture animals, and have started filing lawsuits against the petting zoo company. The first lawsuit, filed Wednesday on behalf of the families of 2-year-old Nicholas Parton and 6-year-old John Kim, accuses Ag-Venture of negligence for failing to have adequate hand-washing facilities or properly warn parents of the danger. Longwood attorney Scott Miller said he will file a lawsuit today on behalf of Tricia Chase and her three children – two of them 18-month-old twins – in Orange County Circuit Court accusing Ag-Venture of negligence.
E. Coli O157:H7 hits hardest on the young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. The bacteria can evolve into hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can shut down kidneys. Central Florida has the majority of the cases. Orange County has 11 confirmed cases, while Volusia has six and Seminole has one. In addition, health officials are keeping an eye on 33 suspected cases.
Agwunobi also raised a new concern, saying the suspected cases indicate the bacteria can be spread through human contact.
“There are lessons we will learn,” he said. “I am of the belief that if you are taking your child to a petting zoo or farm, a very important part of the planning process must contain strict hand washing. Take very serious steps to ensure children aren’t putting their hands in their mouths or on their food. Wash their hands vigorously. I know it sounds simple, but at this point, it’s what science advises we do.”