Fair officials weigh preventive measures


Health: A multi-pronged strategy is under consideration in the wake of an E. coli outbreak this summer.

Instead of banning animals from the fairgrounds or forbidding people to touch them, the Lane County Fair Board will probably stress better hygiene for fairgrounds visitors to avoid future outbreaks of E. coli infection.

Warren Wong, managing director of the fair, has prepared a report for the board summarizing findings made by Dr. William Keene, the state epidemiologist who investigated the mid-August E. coli outbreak at the Lane County Fair. Keene met privately late last week with Wong, members of the fairgrounds staff and other county health officials.

The report includes Wong's recommendations for preventing another outbreak, which include increasing hand-washing, educating the public on how to behave around animals to avoid contracting E. coli bacteria, using greater vigilance in keeping animal areas clean, installing hygienic mats for wiping shoes, and maybe not allowing food or beverages to be taken into the animal exhibit areas.

"Our investigation, as well as that by the public and state health authorities, has revealed that the exposure that occurred could not have been predicted," Wong said in his report to the board.

Extensive investigation "has not revealed a definitive explanation for how this exposure occurred," he said, "and, therefore, we do not know exactly what mechanisms would have prevented the exposure."

Several further-reaching strategies could be used to prevent future outbreaks, including testing animals before letting them onto the fairgrounds, treating fairgrounds facilities with germicides, a partial-to-complete ban of animals from the fairgrounds, or completely separating humans and animal exhibits, Wong said.

However, he said, all of those possibilities pose problems for the fairgrounds operations. Testing would be expensive for animal owners and might not reliably detect the presence of E. coli, which occurs naturally in barnyard animals and can rise or subside within a matter of days, he said.

Total decontamination of buildings between events would be physically impossible as well as prohibitively expensive and still not address the problem of the bacteria being present during exhibitions, Wong said.

Procedures already in place include removing bedding materials immediately after animal exhibitions close, followed by washing floors, pens, stalls, walls and pipes.

Banning animals or separating them from human contact would drastically alter the "mission" of the fairgrounds to support youth activities and celebrate the county's agricultural history and economy, Wong said.

"The exposure which occurred at the 2002 fair is very rare and not reasonably predictable or absolutely preventable," he said. "However, we have learned some things and information that helps us understand additional ways to, hopefully, reduce or prevent exposures in the future."

Keene's investigation indicated that the E. coli bacteria - which exist naturally in animals' intestines - could have been transmitted via straw-contaminated feces that came in direct contact with peoples' hands or shoes, or animals' coats.

Or it could have dried in the unseasonably warm weather and become airborne, later falling on food, animals, floors, railings or other surfaces touched by people, he said.

In either case, people somehow transferred the E. coli germs into their bodies by mouth, where they caused severe gastrointestinal illness.

About 70 fairgoers were infected with the bacteria, which Keene traced to an exhibition hall that housed sheep, goals and swine. Several more fairgoers became infected through exposure to those patients.

The outbreak affected mostly children and young people, hospitalizing 22. A dozen children developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure. None remains hospitalized.

Carson Walter, the 2-year-old Eugene girl perhaps hardest hit by the illness, has regained 50 percent of her kidney function and been taken off all medications except one for high blood pressure, her mother, Shelly Walter, said Monday. Doctors say she still could experience kidney failure, necessitating a transplant, later in life.

FAIR BOARD AND E. COLI

When: 5 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Meeting Room No. 2, Convention Center, Lane County Fairgrounds, 796 W. 13th Ave., Eugene

What: Consider recommendation to help prevent future outbreaks of E. coli bacterial infection related to animal exhibits at fairgrounds

For more information:

682-4292