A dozen children, all under age 10, in South East England are in hospitals across the region with infections from the dangerous E. coli O157:H7 bacteria that they picked up at a popular petting zoo near Surrey.

All totaled, health officials in the United Kingdom (UK) say 36 children were exposed to the bacteria, which was traced to the Godstone Farm & Playbarn, which allows children to touch animals.

Four of the E. coli victims are reported to be in serious condition.

Professor Hugh Pennington, who has led investigations of past E. coli outbreaks in the UK, said this is “a very large outbreak” and E. coli O157:H7 can be “quite dangerous” for young children because some will suffer complications to the brain, heart, and kidneys.”

UK health officials got the farm closed down on Sept. 12th after measures to stem infections failed to halt the outbreak.

Godstone Farm, which has up to 2,000 visitors a day, issued this statement on its website:

“Due to an E-coli outbreak, we have closed the farm until we can make sure it is quite safe for you all to visit us. “

“This is [a] large outbreak of this infection,” said Dr. Angela Iverson, director of the local Health Protection Unit.  She said the farm owners were cooperating with the investigation.

E. coli O157:H7 is an infection that people can pick up when handling or stroking animals, unless hands are thoroughly washing afterwards to minimize the risk,” Iverson said.  “It can also spread easily from person-to-person.”

Children infected with E. coli O157:H7 will suffer from bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal pain and tenderness with no fever.  Hospital laboratories confirm the diagnosis from stool samples.

More serious infections, however, can develop into a kidney disease known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).  It is a severe, life-threatening complication that occurs in about 10 -15 percent of those infected with E. coli O157:H7. “The kidney complications can be quite severe, resulting in long-term damage in some instances,” Professor Pennington said.

Surrey and Sussex Health Protection Units are working with local environmental health officers and the Veterinary Laboratory Agency in the outbreak investigation.  The initial onset of illnesses apparently occurred Aug. 8th.