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Petting zoo linked to illness

A new concern raised by the Florida health secretary is whether the bacteria can be spread through human contact.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer

Published April 1, 2005

State health officials narrowed their focus Thursday to a Plant City-based petting zoo company as the likely source of a bacterial outbreak that has sickened fairgoers across the state.

Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi said DNA samples of five people who fell ill indicate that they contracted a specific strain of E. coli from the same source.

The only factor linking the five is that Ag-Venture Farm Shows provided animals for the fairs that they attended.

"They got it from the same place," Agwunobi said. "We have a very strong suspicion there is an association with this petting zoo."

Agwunobi also added the Florida State Fair to the list of sites where people may have contracted the bacteria. The Strawberry Festival in Plant City and the Central Florida Fair in Orlando are the other two.

He said the animals at Ag-Venture have been quarantined while investigators continue testing.

"We have taken steps to make sure this particular petting zoo is of no further risk," he said. "There will be no further interaction (with the public) as a result of our work with them."

The owner of Ag-Venture, Tom Umiker, could not be reached for comment.

Agwunobi said there are 22 confirmed cases statewide so far: 19 children and three adults. They all suffered diarrhea, attended one of the three fairs and tested positive for the specific strain of E. coli, or hemolytic uremic syndrome, HUS, a fairly infrequent and life-threatening complication of the E. coli infection.

Agwunobi added the Florida State Fair to the list because, in one confirmed case, that person attended the state fair, but not the other two.

The Florida State Fair, which ran Feb. 10-21, attracted more than 500,000 visitors.

Health investigators also are observing 33 people, including several from Hillsborough and Pasco counties, who are suspected of having contracted the illness, but lab results are pending.

Agwunobi also raised a new concern, saying the suspected cases indicate the bacteria can be spread through human contact.

Three of the ill are family members who cared for children who are confirmed to have contracted the bacteria.

"It could be as simple as changing a diaper of a child who had diarrhea," said Agwunobi, a father to three young children who have also visited petting zoos.

He stressed that "frequent and diligent" hand washing can reduce the chance of infection.

"There are lessons we will learn," he said. "I am of the belief that if you are taking your child to a petting zoo or farm, a very important part of the planning process must contain strict hand washing. Take very serious steps to ensure children aren't putting their hands in their mouths or on their food. Wash their hands vigorously. I know it sounds simple, but at this point, it's what science advises we do."

Staff writer Eddy Ramirez contributed to this report.

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