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E. coli Breakout Could Reach Courts

By Mary Brandenberger

January 30, 2003

Eugene - The largest E. coli outbreak in state history has gone from the hospital to the courts. Fair workers cleaned out the animal barn at the Lane County Fairgrounds months ago, after the E. coli outbreak.

Many of the fairgoers infected with E. coli this summer were kids. Most of the children are okay, but the scare sent their parents looking for answers.

Two-year-old Julia Villalobos is healthy and full of energy. Four months ago, it was a different story. A run-of-the mill diaper change surprised her mother. Natalie Villalobos, Mother, says, "There was blood in it and it kind of freaked me out at first. Because you normally don't see blood in that."

A visit to the pig and sheep barn at the Lane County Fair left the toddler with E. coli. This week, Julia's mother joined other parents, and filed a lawsuit against the county. "She'd scream bloody murder when I'd have to change her diaper. And it's sad seeing your kid go through that," she says.

Although health officials traced more than 80 E. coli cases back to animal barn at the fairgrounds, only 15 infected filed lawsuits, but that number could grow.

Warren Wong, Fair Director, says, "It was just a very unfortunate situation that it occurred." The fair director says he somewhat expected the lawsuits, but the fair did nothing wrong. "Our position is that we followed proper procedure, that we were not negligent, and so we don't believe that we're liable," he says.

Julia may never realize what happened. She loves animals, and her mother couldn't keep her away if she tried. But mom knows a visit to the animal barn at the fair will never be the same.

Her mother says, "You just think you're, you know, letting your child have a good time by going and seeing the animals and you don't think about what could really happen. It could've been a lot worse."

Natalie Villalobos had to take a month off work to take care of her sick daughter. She wants the county to reimburse her for lost wages and medical expenses.

The fair board plans to add more signs and hand washing stations next year, and work more closely with animal exhibitors.

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