updated 3/24/2005 12:02:48 PM ET 2005-03-24T17:02:48

Seven children have contracted a life-threatening kidney infection that health officials said may be the result of a rare infection picked up at petting zoos.

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Five of the seven were hospitalized in critical condition, including one on dialysis, the Orlando Sentinel reported in its 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 at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children & Women and released several weeks ago.

The 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.

Health officials are also investigating whether they contracted the disease from contaminated food or beverages.

Video: Infection at petting zoo? The potentially dangerous kidney condition — hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS — is a rare complication arising from an infection most commonly associated with E. coli, a bacterium found in undercooked beef or contaminated food.

Bill Toth, a spokesman for the Orange County Health Department, said not all the children showed signs of E. coli exposure, and investigators were running additional tests.

Officials said three of the children tested positive for a different bacterium — Staphylococcus aureus — that can sometimes lead to the kidney problem.

'Extreme scrutiny'
Central Florida Fair manager Charles Price said petting zoo exhibits are inspected by health officials and veterinarians.

“We have hand-washing stations everywhere,” he said. “A fair today is not like it was 15 years ago. We are under extreme scrutiny.”

An official with the Strawberry Festival wouldn’t comment.

Last fall, 15 children developed the life-threatening kidney ailment in North Carolina, and a petting zoo exhibit at the state fair in October was determined to be the likely source. In all, 108 people, more than half of them small children, were affected by E. coli traced to the fair, though most had far milder symptoms than the 15.

About 73,000 cases of E. coli infection are reported in the United States each year; an average of 61 prove fatal.

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