The petting zoo at the Cleveland County Fair has been officially determined as the initial source of exposure behind the E. coli outbreak that plagued area counties in recent weeks, public health investigators from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday.
Officials, who presented their findings during a press conference in Shelby, also said their investigation found that weather may have played a role in the widespread contamination of the area surrounding the petting zoo exhibit, according to a DHHS press release.
The outbreak has resulted in 106 illnesses, including 14 in Lincoln County, and the death of a Gaston County child.
“Our sincerest sympathies go to those families that have experienced illness and loss in this outbreak,” State Health Director Laura Gerald said in a statement. “Our goal in this and any other public health investigation is not to assign blame, but to identify how to prevent this kind of event from happening again.”
E. coli are naturally occurring bacteria that normally live in the intestines of people and animals. While most strains are harmless, the type identified in this outbreak is very infectious and is common in sheep, goats and cows. Despite protocols in place for agricultural fairs in North Carolina to help ward off transmission of the bacterial infection, it is still possible.
The N.C. General Assembly in 2005, following a E. coli outbreak at the 2004 state fair, enacted Aedin’s Law, which outlines specific measures governing animal-contact exhibits at agricultural fairs in an effort to protect public health and safety.
The statute’s measures are monitored by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The Cleveland County investigation, which began Oct. 8, involved a case-control study of those who became ill, as well as an additional 160 individuals who attended the fair but did not become ill. Local health department personnel in Cleveland, Gaston, Lincoln, Catawba, Rutherford and Union counties conducted 266 extensive interviews in the weeks following the outbreak.
In addition to the case-control study, analysis by the State Laboratory of Public Health and United States Department of Agriculture confirmed two specific strains of E. coli in cases from the outbreak that were matched to environmental samples taken from the fairgrounds. Investigators noted that heavy rains during the run of the fair, from Sept. 29 through Oct. 8, resulted in runoff that may have spread contamination from the petting zoo into nearby areas.
Cleveland County Fair officials, the release said, have cooperated fully in the investigation and, as of Oct. 19, announced that all public events at the fairgrounds would be closed pending the completion of the public health investigation.
“An investigation of this size and scope requires a team effort, and our local health departments have done outstanding work,” Gerald said. “We look forward to working with local and state partners as well as fair officials to identify recommendations to reduce the risk of exposure to future fairgoers.”