The Agriplex at the Western Fair in London, Ontario, Canada might well be North America’s largest petting zoo with easily accessible stalls for 400 animals.  Just ten years ago, in 1999, the Western Fair was the location of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened 159 people, mostly children.

Now it is happening again, as health officials in Canada say four people who visited the Western Fair between Sept. 11 and 20 became infected with E. coli O157:H7

“To date, all four cases visited the Agriplex at the Western Fair although it is currently uncertain if exposure in that building is the source of their infection,” the Middlesex-London Health Unit said in a media release.

Already this year, petting zoos at fairs, farms, and exhibits in the United Kingdom, Colorado, and British Columbia have spread E. coli O157:H7 to dozens of children.

“It is unusual to have four cases of E. coli O157:H7 reported so close together in time with a common exposure,” says Ms. Cathie Walker, Manager of Infectious Disease Control Team.  In addition, the laboratory has identified that three of the cases have exactly the same strain of E. coli O157:H7, providing additional information that these cases are connected; further testing is pending on the fourth case.

In the United Kingdom, two children continue to recover from E. coli O157:H7 infections in hospitals after the Godstone Farm petting zoo outbreak sickened 93.

A You Tube-like video on the Internet promoting “Barn Tours” at Western Fair’s Agriplex shows how easy it is for children to come in contact with the animals and shows no sign of hand washing facilities.  A university researcher three years ago showed how common it was for children visiting to Ontario petting zoos to be observed drinking from bottles and sucking on pacifiers.

The Health Unit issued this advisory to the public:

Members of the public who developed severe or bloody diarrhea after visiting the Western Fair are advised to:

  • Contact the Health Unit (519-663-5317 ext 2330; after hours 519-675-7523);
  • Contact their health care provider.

People with severe or bloody diarrhea are also advised:

Not to work as food handlers, childcare workers or healthcare providers or attend a childcare center until they have consulted with their health care provider.  If E. coli O157:H7 is confirmed, they will be required to provided two stool samples to their healthcare provider that indicate the bacteria is gone before they can return to these settings;

Not to prepare food for others in their family until their symptoms have resolved for at least 48 hours;

To wash their hands thoroughly using pump soap and warm water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after using the bathroom. 

To note that small children will require the help of an adult to ensure that proper hand hygiene has occurred. Hand washing should also take place after changing diapers.

What is E. coli O157:H7?

E. coli O157:H7 is a bacterial infection that causes symptoms of abdominal pain and mild to severe diarrhea that can also be bloody. Sometimes infected people have no symptoms at all. The time from contact with an infected source to the appearance of symptoms ranges from 2 to 10 days; most often it is between 3 and 4 days. In a small number of individuals, a complication of E. coli O157:H7 infection called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome can develop. This syndrome can lead to kidney, blood and neurological problems. Antibiotics should NOT be used to treat E. coli O157:H7 as they can increase the chances of developing Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome.

How is E. coli O157:H7 spread?

Infection with E. coli O157:H7 may be acquired by eating contaminated foods such as meat, particularly ground beef, or fresh produce or by drinking contaminated water or unpasteurized milk. E. coli O157:H7 may also be acquired by touching the feces of infected animals. It can be spread person to person when fecal matter gets on the hands after using the washroom or changing diapers.  Hand washing with pump soap and warm water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after these activities is essential.