There’s nothing more American than the local fair. Countless millions visit them each year for the rides, the delectable goodies, and for some up close and personal — sometimes even hands on — time with the farm animals. What fair-goers are finding out though, and often through devastating illness rather than education, is that the irresistible petting zoos and livestock exhibitions, which attract more children than anything, often harbor the lethal bacteria E. coli O157:H7. For the sake of the kids, we must turn our attention to this undeniable health concern.
Most people associate E. Coli O157:H7 only with undercooked hamburgers from fast food restaurants. As a lawyer who has represented thousands of victims of E. coli poisoning, however, I have learned that the problem is not so confined. Infection can occur in a variety of ways, including attendance at a petting zoo or the livestock barn at the county fair, and those most vulnerable are our children.
Any place where people come into contact with farm animals must be considered high risk for exposure to E. coli and other poisons. The track record speaks for itself. Since 1995, fifteen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos in the United States (see www.fair-safety.com). Hundreds have been sickened. Many escape with a bad case of diarrhea and cramps; but some, mostly kids, suffer permanent kidney damage due to a complication of E. coli infection called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS).
Some have even died.
In 2003, 24 people fell ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after attending the county fair at Fort Bend, Texas. Illness was not linked to food. Investigators found, instead, that all ill individuals had visited animal exhibition areas at the fair. Further investigation revealed that both the rodeo and animal exhibition areas were saturated with E. coli O157:H7.
In 2002, in what is believed to be the largest E. coli outbreak in Oregon state history, at least 82 people became sick after attending the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon. Most were young children, and 22 were hospitalized. Of those who were hospitalized, over half experienced kidney failure. Oregon Health Services eventually traced the infections to the goat and sheep exposition hall, and investigators believe the bacteria were possibly transmitted through the ventilation system.
In 1998, at least 781 people became ill after attending a fair in Washington County near Albany, New York. Of those, 71 were hospitalized and two eventually died from kidney failure. The cause: water contaminated by a neighboring farm.
The list goes on – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio – each outbreak beginning with livestock and other farm animals. In 2001, observing the dangerous trend, the CDC warned operators of petting zoos and county fairs to clean up.
The warning, however, has gone unheeded, and lessons from previous outbreaks are unlearned. Now it is North Carolina with over 100 children sickened at a recent livestock exhibition.
Those farm animals may be cute, but they can also carry a deadly pathogen. A recent United States Department of Agriculture study of over 20 County Fairs found E. coli O157:H7 in 13.8 percent of beef cattle, 5.9 percent of dairy cattle, and slightly smaller percentages of sheep, pigs and goats – nearly the same percentages found in animals in feed lots. How many of us would take our kids to visit and pet animals in a feed lot?
Imagine how government would respond if the same number of people had been injured from falling off merry-go-rounds. Those wooden horses would grind to a halt and the lawyers would have a field day. But when people suffer from E. coli O157:H7 poisoning, fair and petting zoo-related outbreaks are ignored. Why?
Ignoring the risks involved with human-animal contact and allowing outbreaks to continue makes good business for lawyers like me. But I’ll gladly give up that business if it means not having to see four-year-olds hooked up to kidney dialysis machines. So what do we do? Banish state and county fairs? Eliminate Petting Zoos? Of course not. But fair organizers can take some rather simple and inexpensive precautions.
First, they need to clean up their act. Sanitize walkways and railings, and provide ample hand-washing areas for both employees and visitors.
Second, stop selling or allowing food in close proximity to areas where animals are on display.
Third, increase ventilation of buildings to reduce the risk of airborne contamination. Keep livestock areas damp with an approved disinfectant.
Fourth, test all display animals for E. coli O157:H7 – or require that exhibitors show proof that their animals are pathogen-free.
Finally, educate visitors. Post signs that explain to parents the importance of hand-washing before and after visiting animal exhibition areas and petting zoos. Post warnings at the entrances, emphasizing the risks to small children and of the potential for airborne transmission of disease.
Perhaps these precautions won’t eliminate all the risk to public health. But for such a minimal investment, organizers can reduce the risk of sending kids to the hospital – or worse. And at the same time, they can avoid lawsuits and put lawyers like me out of business.