updated 4/1/2005 4:07:55 PM ET 2005-04-01T21:07:55

Shannon Smowton’s trip to the fair should have ended with happy memories of carnival rides and cute farm animals. Instead, the 5-year-old is clinging to life, her kidneys under attack from the E. coli infection she apparently caught at the fair.

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Shannon is among at least 22 people, almost all children, who fell seriously ill after visiting one of three fairs in Florida in the past two months. State health officials are investigating 35 more cases.

At the Central Florida Fair in Orlando, the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City and the Florida State Fair in Tampa, the victims may have had different things to eat and drink, but almost all of them touched the chicks, sheep, goats and calves in the petting zoos.

“I wasn’t thinking E. coli, but I certainly didn’t want them eating fair food, so I thought popcorn and ice cream would be safe,” said Shannon’s mother, Kathie Smowton. “I tried to avoid the hot dogs and corn dogs. But who would’ve thought the animals ...?”

Growing threat to public health
If officials confirm the outbreak began in the zoos, where animals’ feces can carry the potentially lethal bacteria, this would be the latest episode in what appears to be a growing threat to public health.

“It’s seems to be an increasing phenomenon,” said Jeff Bender, an assistant professor of veterinary public health at the University of Minnesota. “As a result, we need to get some recommendations or guidelines out there.”

According to the experts, people who visit petting zoos must take safety into their own hands — literally. What often happens is that a toddler will pet a sheep or goat, then stick his fingers in his mouth, as children often do.

“The single most important thing in prevention is handwashing,” Bender said. He added that only handwashing with soap and water or a sanitizing gel will work.

Because of the outbreak, numerous schools in Florida are canceling trips to petting zoos. The Springtime Tallahassee festival will not have animals to pet this weekend, and the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office is closing its zoo for 60 days.

Also, the Lake County Fair canceled its zoo rather than use the same company, Ag-Venture Farm Shows of Plant City, that supplied the animals at the previous three fairs. Ag-Venture Farm Shows did not return repeated calls for comment.

Outbreaks of E. coli
One of the nation’s first large outbreaks came in the fall of 2000, when E. coli at a suburban Philadelphia petting farm infected 16 children. Health officials suspected an additional 45 probable cases.

Outbreaks at county fairs in Ohio and Wisconsin sickened 84 in the summer of 2001. In August 2002, 82 people, mostly children, fell ill after attending a county fair in Oregon. The livestock were gone by the time the fair visitors got there, but traces of the animals’ feces remained in a barn.

And 108 people got sick after visiting the North Carolina state fair’s petting zoos last fall.

The outbreaks are blamed on the bacterium E. coli O157:H7, which typically causes bloody diarrhea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that this strain of E. coli is responsible for an average of 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the United States each year.

About 8 percent of people infected with E. coli O157:H7 are later stricken with the potentially fatal kidney disease known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS.

There are many theories why these outbreaks have developed only recently, Bender said. Possible explanations include the emergence of new bacteria, and humans’ lowered resistance to disease because of increasing urbanization. E. coli also may have been passed to farm animals by deer, their population growing because they no longer face many predators in the wild.

Shannon has HUS, and might not leave the hospital for another month. Since entering intensive care two weeks ago, she has had periods of unresponsiveness and hallucinations.

“I talked with the other mother we went to the fair with, and she was crying and saying, ‘I wish I had never asked you to come,”’ Kathie Smowton said.

Livestock on farms and at fairs are not regularly tested for E. coli O157:H7 because inspectors are looking only for illnesses that could harm the animals themselves. Infection with the bacteria is not uncommon among livestock, and an animal with E. coli O157:H7 shows no symptoms and does not get sick.

“One of the questions I constantly get is, ‘Why don’t we just test the animals before they’re placed in petting zoos?”’ Bender said. “Ideally, that’s great because you identify during that day that they probably don’t have E. coli. But that doesn’t say anything about the next couple of days.”

This weekend, the Clay County Agricultural Affair in Green Cove Springs will have three times as many handwashing stations as it did last year, along with signs telling children to wash up after touching the animals, manager Joan Bazley said.

Still, said Kathie Smowton: “At this point, I can’t imagine anyone taking their children to a petting zoo.”

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