Officials: Petting zoo source of deadly E. coli outbreak at fair

Officials: Petting zoo source of deadly E. coli outbreak at fair


by TONY BURBECK / NBC Charlotte

Bio | Email | Follow: @TonyWCNC

Posted on November 9, 2012 at 3:20 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 9 at 6:48 PM

CLEVELAND COUNTY, N.C. – Health officials said Friday a petting zoo at the Cleveland County fairgrounds was the initial source of exposure to an E. coli outbreak that killed a 2-year-old and sickened more than 100 people.

During a news conference Friday afternoon officials from the Department of Health and Human Services also said weather may have been a factor in widespread contamination of the area around the petting zoo.

Cases of E. coli began appearing a day after the fair ended on October 7.

One of the sickest E. coli victims was released from the hospital Thursday after 35 days.  McNair, a student at John Chavis Middle School in Cherryville, was in the intensive care unit for days but started to be able to breathe on his own October 20. He was able to leave the hospital on his own feet Thursday morning.

McNair ate two corn dogs and milked a cow at the petting zoo, according to The Shelby Star.

A 2-year-old from Gaston County died from complications of the illness.

A 5-year-old victim, Hanna Roberts, was admitted to Carolinas Medical Center on Thursday night -- two weeks after being released from the hospital. Family members say some of the girl’s symptoms reappeared.

"Blood-curdling screams again," said mother Tracy Roberts.

Roberts says Hannah has the equivalent of post traumatic stress disorder from being so sick and associating so much pain with going to the bathroom.

"The E.coli is now causing her to not want to use the bathroom at all and it's causing her some severe constipation now and swelling of her belly," said Roberts.

Investigators say some people fed the animals and touched hay that was in the petting zoo, but overall they do not know how the E.coli was transmitted.  They interviewed every person who became ill, but different stories emerged about who went where and did what.

"There are a thousand ways that you can transmit that particular bacteria to your mouth and people do it inadvertently, " said Evelyn Foust with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.  "If you are walking through an area that might be infected with E.coli, you can get that on your shoes."

Foust says there is no evidence anyone did anything wrong.  The fairgrounds' owner passed all inspections and officials say he went above and beyond what the state requires for cleanliness and sanitation.

"My concern is for others kids and their families that this never happens again," Roberts said.

Health officials say do not know exactly how E. coli was transmitted at the fairgrounds saying there are just too many factors to narrow it down.

E.coli strains were found mostly in and around the petting zoo, but also in a parking lot due to runoff from rain, health officials said.

The state interviewed all people who got sick as well as those who didn't to determine the most likely cause was the petting zoo and feeding animals.

The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.