Denver’s National Western Stock Show has no plans to eliminate its “petting farm” exhibit after infecting at least 30, mostly kids, with E. coli O157:H7 last year, sending nine to area hospitals.  None died.

Instead it has enlisted the petting farm sponsorship of the Denver Post, the city’s surviving daily newspaper, and plans to bring in at least 20,000 mostly city children in school tour buses when the Jan. 9-24, 2010 event gets underway.

The petting farm is a free exhibit at the National Western Stock Show, but “ice cream cones of feed” for the animals will be sold to children for $3.  On its website promoting the 104 year old event, this is how National Western advertises the Petting Farm:

This is the perfect place for children and parents to actively interact with animals, but we must also stress the importance of washing hands after petting the animals.

In a 15-page report released last week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment blamed exposures to animals at the stock show as the likely cause of the E. coli outbreak experienced on the Front Range last January and February.  The report specifically cited the “Feed the Animals” exhibit.

Pat Grant, who runs the stock show, says it will post signs about the risks and encourage proper hand washing.

Colorado health officials noted in the report that the petting zoo and food vendors are located in the same floor, a practice that makes it more likely for children to ingest animal feces orally.  The “Feed the Animals” area involved calves, goats, lambs, pigs and other farm animals brought into the exhibit from area farms and ranches.  There was also a “petting zoo” on the second floor.

“We were not successful in pinpointing the exact animal that may have caused the outbreak,” investigators wrote. “We hypothesize that an animal (or animals) in the “Feed the Animals” area was likely shedding E. coli O157:H7 in its feces and contaminated the pen enclosure, pen bedding materials, floor and/or other environmental surfaces.”

From there, it is likely the contamination was spread over a wide area by shoe bottoms and strollers.

Hand sanitizers were available in the area, but not hand washing facilities with running hot water, soap and paper towels.  Signs did not warn that animals could spread diseases.

With the outbreak investigation, the stock show has put this announcement on its website:

National Western’s Statement on E. coli

“Eschericia coli, more commonly known as E. coli, is a commonly found bacteria in our environment. It can be found in animals as well as people. Humans may contact this bacteria from flies, touching a contaminated surface or even shaking the hand of another person.

It is important to use good hygiene whenever a person has been in contact with public facilities, petting animals and interacting with people in public. Always take the time to wash your hands before eating or touching your hands to your face. Use soap and warm water if possible and dry your hands well. Good hygiene will prevent the spread of this bacteria and keep human cases of E. coli infection to a minimum.”

The stock show has not provided any information on its website about how 30 young people were infected in 2009 with a potentially fatal disease through contact with its animal exhibits.  The state has recommended the stock show install more hand washing stations and educate parents about the risks to their children.

In the 2009 outbreak, females accounted for 23 of the 30 cases.  The median age was five years old.