Investigators focusing on dangerous E. coli strain in Florida outbreak


ORLANDO, Fla. - (KRT) - Shannon Smowton lay under a pink blanket in her hospital bed Friday, a ventilator tube taped to her mouth and a stuffed toy lamb tucked under one arm.

Greeting cards adorned the walls of her room, many of them hand-made by kindergarten classmates.

The little girl's closed eyelids twitched slightly when her mother spoke and swiped a thumb gently across Shannon's forehead.

She hasn't been fully conscious since last weekend.

"It's mommy, baby," Kathie Smowton cooed over the 5-year-old. "Can you hear mommy?"

A dialysis machine has taken the place of Shannon's failed kidneys as she fights the effects of a dangerous bacterial infection that has sickened at least 15 people across Florida.

Eleven victims are children younger than 10, and all of them attended either the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City or the Central Florida Fair in Orlando. Both events ran from March 3-13, and many of the children had contact with farm animals at petting zoos or other exhibits.

Investigators are focusing on a dangerous strain of Escherichia coli as the likely culprit. This form of bacteria - called E. coli O157:H7 - has been linked to similar outbreaks in other states. It can be spread by contaminated food or beverages and through contact with animal manure that harbors the bacteria.

There are many strains of E. coli, and farm animals commonly carry some form of the germs. State veterinarians are testing animals from the fairs to see if any are infected with the potentially fatal variety.

While the investigation is ongoing, the state's top doctor said he expects more sick people to be identified in coming days. He isn't ready to speculate on how people got the bacteria at either public gathering.

But officials are looking for "common activities that would bridge both of those events," said Dr. John Agwunobi, secretary of the Florida Department of Health. "It is way too early to point to any single activity, whether it be a petting zoo or anything else, and say this is the cause."

He said the majority of cases - nine - have occurred among Orange County residents.

While 11 victims are children, four adults age 40 and older also have fallen ill.

The number of cases is a moving target as the state confirms new ones and some that were counted previously are excluded after investigators determine that they don't fit into the current outbreak.

Doctors at two Orlando hospitals said they were treating a total of 10 youngsters for one of the most dangerous complications of an E. coli infection, a kidney ailment called hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS.

Four children were improving and listed Friday as stable or fair; and one youngster who was rated in good condition could go home as early as this weekend. Two others were listed as serious, and three remain in critical condition, including Shannon Smowton.

Her parents, from Winter Garden, Fla., spend every day near the girl's bed in intensive care, looking for any sign of improvement. The little girl went to the Florida Strawberry Festival with her mom and sister, MacKenzie, on March 11.

The girls are animal lovers, with a dog and fish at home as pets. Their father, Greg Smowton, said they often run outside after it rains to pluck worms off the sidewalk and put them safely back in the grass.

Both children fed the goats, pigs and lambs at the festival, where they also snacked on ice cream and popcorn. Kathie Smowton said they sat on the ground for a little bit around a sweet-natured calf with big brown eyes.

Sitting in a hospital conference room on Friday, Kathie Smowton's eyes were quick to tear up, as her husband wrapped an arm around the back of her chair.

"You just don't imagine taking your kids to a fair on a Friday and then ending up here," she said.

MacKenzie, 7, hasn't shown any signs of being sick, but Shannon fell ill last week with diarrhea and bad abdominal cramps. Her parents took her to the doctor twice, eventually landing at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Women & Children when she wasn't getting any better.

When test results came back positive for E. coli O157:H7, Shannon's parents dove into research to learn more about the bacteria.

They said doctors have told them that Shannon has a good chance of beating her illness. But they've had some gut-wrenching days as they've seen their daughter hooked up to tubes and fighting for her life.

"It was horrific," Greg Smowton, an Orange County firefighter and paramedic, said about the first couple of days of Shannon's hospital stay.

His little girl was lapsing in and out of consciousness even before doctors hooked her up to the respirator and dialysis machine, which cleanses the blood when the kidneys are no longer working.

At Shannon's bedside Friday, her mother said the little girl was looking much better to her. There is a color in her cheeks, with her golden-blond hair pulled off her face in tiny red ribbons.

Kathie Smowton fusses over her daughter lovingly, arranging her blanket, her stuffed animal, her hair.

"It's okay, baby," she tells her, "it's okay."