I flew from Seattle to Yakima in the storm and fog to give a presentation to the Washington State Department of Health on how to manage the risk of E. coli O157:H7 infections in petting zoos. I have posted the PowerPoint at www.fair-safety.com.
UPI also did an article on the trickling in of lawsuits in the outbreak of kidney failures among children who have visited petting zoos in Florida. Statewide, there are 24 confirmed cases of E.coli infection and 40 suspected cases.
The lawsuits allege Ag-Venture should have done a better job protecting visitors from the bacteria and merely cautioning them to wash their hands was not enough.
“The reality is, trying to keep their hands washed constantly, not just wiping them down with a handy wipe — it’s a very difficult task,” said Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who filed one of the suits.
As the Times reported in their article “Seattle lawyer says his client may join other cases against Ag-Venture Farm Shows,” Marler Clark filed a suit on behalf of Yvonne Miller, an Orlando mother of three, alleging Ag-Venture should have done a better job protecting fairgoers from exposure to pathogens.
As the number of people who have fallen ill after attending festivals in Orange and Hillsborough counties continues to rise, lawsuits are trickling in. The Times reports that in Orange County, where the majority of the stricken live, at least three lawsuits have been filed against Plant City-based Ag-Venture Farm Shows, the suspected source of the bacteria outbreak. Ag-Venture provided petting zoos at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, the Florida State Fair in Tampa and the Central Florida Fair in Orlando.
Statewide so far, there are 24 confirmed cases of E. coli infection – 20 of which have been linked to the same source – and 40 suspected cases, Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi said Monday. Lab tests showed that the strain of E. coli that Miller contracted matched genetically with the 19 others. As I told the Times reporter, I may join lawyers who have also filed lawsuits on behalf of other victims to consolidate the cases.
From the article:
Meanwhile, Marler, the attorney, said petting zoos need to do more to prevent outbreaks, and that it is difficult for parents to keep toddlers’ hands out of their mouths.
“They’re sitting in ICU with their kids on dialysis and they’re hearing it’s their fault for not having their kids wash their hands,” he said.
“The reality is, trying to keep their hands washed constantly, not just wiping them down with a handy wipe, it’s a very difficult task. In these kinds of scenarios, where it’s basically an animal free-for-all, you can’t expect hand washing to be perfect.”
Marler said in 2002, at the Oregon State Fair, there wasn’t a petting zoo, but 85 people who walked through a small animal barn fell ill.
“I represented kids who never got out of their strollers,” he said.
Marler added that he wants to see stricter guidelines imposed on petting zoos, like keeping them cleaner, having hand-washing stations with hot water and posting more signs warning parents of the risks.
“We’re just not doing enough to protect the kids,” he said. “Frankly, the industry isn’t doing enough to protect itself.”
A seventh child in central Florida has contracted a life-threatening kidney infection after visiting a petting zoo in Orlando. Five of the seven children were hospitalized in critical condition, including one on dialysis, the Orlando Sentinel reported for Thursday editions. Another had been upgraded to stable condition, said Dr. Mehul Dixit, who is treating some of the children at Florida Hospital Orlando.
One child was treated and released from Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children & Women several weeks ago.
The potentially dangerous kidney condition — hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS — is a rare complication arising from an initial infection most commonly associated with E. coli, a bacterium found in undercooked beef or contaminated food.
Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, lethargy, anemia and decreased urine output are all signs of kidney failure.
The hospitalized children all touched animals recently at area fairs, including the Central Florida Fair in Orlando and the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. They might have been exposed to the bacteria through the animals’ feces, officials said.
As the Associated Press reported yesterday, I filed my lawsuit against Crossroads Farm Petting Zoo Friday on behalf of my clients whose young children got HUS from E. coli contamination at the North Carolina State Fair. Some of these families have more than $100,000 in medical bills, so this won’t be a cheap lawsuit. Not that HUS cases ever are.
And not that there’s any amount of money in the world that could restore what these families have lost. One family had two preschool boys who became severely ill, with one boy hospitalized for 10 days and the other for 17 days. All of the children involved in the lawsuit were 3 or younger.
As the AP reports:
“Twenty-four outbreaks have been linked to fairs and petting zoos since 1995,” Marler said after the lawsuit was filed. “At this petting zoo, procedures were woefully inadequate to prevent an outbreak.”
North Carolina health officials announced Thursday that the Crossroads Farm Petting Zoo exhibition at the state fair in October. This was a heartbreaking outbreak — one that caused 15 young children to get HUS. Four out of the 15 are still on kidney dialysis. Half of the 108 people infected with E. coli were 5 years old or younger, and two-thirds were under 18.
As the Associated Press reported yesterday:
Health inspectors found that those infected at the State Fair were most likely to have fallen down in manure, touched manure, stepped on manure or had animals jump on them.
Children who were sucking their thumbs or pacifiers or drinking from a sippy cup while visiting the petting zoo were also more likely to be infected, the report said.
The report said Crossroads Farm Petting Zoo “had implemented guidelines from a national group of public health veterinarians to encourage hand hygiene to protect visitors from illness. Signs and hand sanitizing stations were present.”
However, because very few E. coli bacteria can cause infection, those measures were not enough, the report said.
I was featured in the Food Protection Report (December 2004 Vol. 20 No. 12), talking about E. coli O157:H7 and fair outbreaks, specifically regarding the prevention measures taken after the 2002 Lane County outbreak in Oregon… and how kids are still getting sick, even when the fair-runners do everything right.
“I think counties and states may have to reassess whether it is worth having fairs, petting zoos, and other events that bring people in close contact with animals,” suggests prominent food litigation lawyer William Marler of the Seattle law firm Marler Clark. “I know it sounds un-American, but we are now having outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 linked to these events almost on a yearly basis,” Marler told Food Protection Report.
Infections picked up at events where people and animals mingle can spread throughout the community. Since 1998, at least seven E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks have been traced to fairs. The most recent outbreak occurred in North Carolina, where an investigation is ongoing.
Although the specifics of each E. coli outbreak at fairs differ, Marler says, they all have a common denominator and the pathogen lurks in ways that were not seen decades ago. A 2003 study by USDA found E. coli O157:H7 was not only commonly present at fairs but that levels of the bacteria were similar to those found in commercially reared livestock, which surprised researchers.
As Randi Bjornstad of The Register-Guard reported in the article Back from the Brink: Families of children who contracted E. coli count blessings — and bills, I’ve advised my clients to drop their lawsuits regarding the E. coli outbreak at the 2002 Lane County Fair. Not an easy decision, for me or for my clients, but after doing a lot of research and taking dozens of depositions of Lane County officials, family members of those affected by the outbreak and field experts, I saw no other choice.
From the article:
In 2002, when the Lane County outbreak happened, “airborne or dustborne transmission of E. coli was still a novel concept,” Marler said. “Whether that’s exactly how these people got the infection, we just don’t know. Some washed their hands, others didn’t. Some touched animals, others didn’t. Some of the children walked through the barns, some never got out of their strollers. We just couldn’t pinpoint, `This is what the fair didn’t do, this is what they should have done.’ Without that, we couldn’t win a lawsuit.”
He and the families wanted more than just a financial settlement.
“Most state, county and local entities are either immune from lawsuits or have caps on awards,” Marler said. “There’s very little economic incentive for them to change. I’m not suggesting that all award caps should be removed, but I think government officials should look at these situations as if it were their grandkids who had the problem.”
If they did, Kevin Closson believes, it might cut E. coli outbreaks in the future. Closson’s daughter, Madeline, then 3, spent two weeks in Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, undergoing daily dialysis treatments for a week and requiring blood transfusions.
“During dialysis … they suck the blood out, clean it up, cool it down and put it back in,” Closson said. “It takes several hours, which is one thing for an adult but way too much for a little child, so they have to put them under anesthesia to do it. At one point, in one day, Maddy was under three times. The money wasn’t as big a thing to us as witnessing what all that did to our 3-year-old’s body.”
The News-Observer ran an article a few days ago about 3-year-old Matthew Baldwin, who picked up a nearly deadly case of E. coli from a 45-minute visit to the petting zoo in October. Matthew was the first of more than 100 people sickened by E. coli last month after attending the North Carolina State Fair.
From the article:
William D. Marler, a personal injury lawyer in Seattle who specializes in contamination cases, said petting zoos are increasingly being identified as sources of E. coli outbreaks. He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published suggestions to cut exposure, such as providing hand-washing stations with running water and soap — an amenity that wasn’t offered at the State Fair’s petting zoos.
Exhibits that fail to take such measures, Marler said, may carry some legal liability, and four North Carolina families have contacted him.
“I don’t think we, as the public and people in positions of authority, have taken this seriously,” Marler said. “Maybe five years ago nobody really knew about this, and it was novel. But it’s far more than novel at this point. There are dozens of outbreaks that have occurred in petting zoos and fairs.
“We have to get past the thought that we’re not going to do anything because fairs are part of Americana. If these were Ferris wheel accidents year in and year out, the public would go crazy.”
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.