Today is the 10th day since the close of the Cleveland County fair and the number of E. coli infection cases linked to the Fair has climbed to 46. This number includes the first known victim from Mecklenburg County. State health officials said 29 victims are adults and 17 are children.
The specific cause of the outbreak is still unknown, but investigators continue to interview families of those who are sick along with those who didn’t get ill in an attempt to find the cause. Since E. coli bacteria are found in the wastes of animals, the petting zoo is a suspected source of the outbreak. One theory is that the animals were kicking the hay out into the walkway, which had the E. coli bacteria on it, and kids were picking up the hay to feed to the animals. It was also theorized that some fairgoers brought strollers into the petting zoo when they weren’t supposed to and feces could have gotten onto the strollers and then to the kids riding inside them.
Despite the number of theories, the exact source of the E. coli outbreak remains unknown. Investigators have looked at different foods that were served from vendors, but no particular food has yet been identified as the suspect source. To make the investigation more difficult, it was reported that some victims who got sick did not go to the petting zoo or eat from food vendors.
The Cleveland County Fair has grown to become the state’s largest county fair. Despite the rainy weather, this year’s event still attracted 165,000 people. It was reported that the Director of the fair, Calvin Hastings, said the fair tried to prevent E. coli problems, including working with the fair’s 50 food vendors. The fair had nine hand-washing stations, instead of the five required by the state, and signs were posted around the grounds reminding people to wash their hands.
Despite all precautions, the first fatality from the outbreak occurred last Friday. Gage Lefever, age two, died from complications of the E. coli infection.
Officials hope that the rising number of E. coli cases will start to taper off since today marks the 10th day since the end of the fair and E. coli symptoms can appear up to 10 days after contact. However, authorities speculate that the second wave of infections may occur, since the disease can be spread from human to human. Originally, the outbreak seemed confined to Cleveland, Gaston and Lincoln counties, but the area has since widened. As of Monday, the counties with confirmed cases were: Cleveland County, Gaston County, Lincoln County, Catawba County, Union County, Mecklenburg County, York County, S.C. and Cherokee County, S.C.