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Charlotte Area News

Petting Zoo Led To E. Coli Outbreak In Cleveland County

The culprit: the petting zoo.

After more than a month of investigation, state health officials say they've determined what may have led to 106 cases of E. Coli infection and one death.  Investigators say that now that the investigation has been completed, the next step is establishing a task force of state and local health officials and managers.

State health officials held a press conference in Cleveland County, not far from the site of the Cleveland County Fair, to release the results of their investigation. They said heavy rains during the fair may also have played a big role in the outbreak.

Carl Williams, the state's public health veterinarian says the U.S. Department of Agriculture and State Laboratory of Public Health collected samples from 47 different locations for evidence of E. coli. In nine of those locations, Williams says they were able to match the strain of E. coli that made hundreds sick.

"So what we were able to find in these situations was that the outbreak strain that we could match specifically to the outbreak strain from people with the predominantly in the area where the petting zoo was but not in other areas," Williams says. 

The petting zoo was from a farm in Tennessee. State health officials there have been notified. Many of the nearby animal exhibits, food service areas and restrooms that they tested were not contaminated.

A task force will also be created to issue further recommendations before county and state fair season begins again next summer. It will include scientists, health officials, fair managers and members of the public. Evelyn Foust heads the Communicable Diseases branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"This type of work is what's going to help us help this community to be able to have a fair again and have it even safer," Foust says. 

The Cleveland County Fair put a hold on animal exhibits at the Cleveland County Fair until the task force issues its recommendations says fairgrounds manager Calvin Hastings.  

"The amount of agricultural production and content in Cleveland County is not what it used to be," Hasting says. "But, it continues to be important for county fairs to keep the tradition of agricultural products, heritage, crafts and growing and preserving the techniques for crops and animals alive for current and future generations to understand."

The county's investigation began last month and also included a controlled study comparing individuals who were sick to 160 individuals who attended the fair but did not become sick. More than half of the 106 attendees who got sick were under the age of 15 or female.