Tragedy struck as a Maine toddler, just 20 months old, perished after contracting an E. coli infection at a county fair's petting zoo.
A Maine toddler was pronounced dead after contracting an E. coli infection following a visit to the Oxford County Fair. According to a report from WMTW, the 20-month-old Colton Guay of Poland passed away from complications related to hemolytic uremic syndrome a week after he was admitted to the Maine Medical Center.
Hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, is a condition caused by toxic bacteria that affect the function of the kidneys and other essential organs. Colton was rushed to the hospital by his parents after he began suffering from severe diarrhea and seizures. Colton’s father, Jon Guay, believes that the disease was passed along to the toddler when he interacted with farm animals at the fair’s petting zoo.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that two children had been admitted to local hospitals for symptoms related to an E. coli infection. Myles Herschaft of Auburn, just 17 months old, as reported to be in fair condition at the Maine Medical Center.
The fathers of the two boys, Jon Guay and Victor Herschaft, met each other while they waited for their sons to be treated at the Maine Medical Center. After speaking, they soon realized that both had visited the same fair. State and county officials began scrambling to determine what the cause of the tragic infection could have been, hoping to identify the infected animal and remove it from the fair circuit.
Petting zoos across the state are now taking measures to ensure all of their animals are safe to touch. Officials at the Fryeburg Fair on Wednesday afternoon set up hand sanitizer stations outside of the petting zoo, and posted notices reminding parents to make sure their children washed their hands after touching the live animals. According to Kate Sutherland of Bethel, the increased vigilance about the spread of infections from farm animals in petting zoos has resulted in a heightened level of consciousness at county fairs following the toddler’s death.
Veterinarians at the Fryeburg Fair were on site to explain how E. coli can be transmitted from animals to humans. They explained that when people come into contact with the manure of an animal that has been infected by the bacteria, transmission is as simple as ingesting a small amount that could have been left over on their hands. There is no outward way to tell which animals are infected, so the veterinarians recommend washing your hands after touching any animal, no matter what.
According to veterinarian Dr. Mark Anderson, death from this particular mode of E. coli transmission is extremely rare. Dr. Anderson warns that parents should keep a close eye on toddlers near animals, and if your child has a penchant for taking things off the ground and inspecting them with his or her mouth, it may be a good idea to avoid petting zoos altogether. He explains that younger children have weaker immune systems, and often have trouble dealing with harmful pathogens like E. coli.
The Maine CDC has been tirelessly searching for clues in the case, and to see if the animals at the petting zoo could have transmitted the disease even further. The CDC is currently working with the state’s veterinarian and the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to find out whether both children who contracted E. coli visited the same petting zoo at the Oxford County Fair.
A representative from the fair said that Oxford County was working with the state veterinarian, Dr. Michele Walsh, to offer any assistance they could in the investigation. The state vet’s office is working with the CDC and could potentially begin sampling the livestock for traces of the bacteria in an effort to identify the infected individual.
Dr. Walsh explains that testing animals for the disease poses challenges because many of the livestock carry healthy strands of E. coli in addition to dangerous ones, not unlike humans.
The state’s veterinary office spends the year working with county fairs to make sure they have a sufficient buffer between livestock and fairgoers. They discourage against petting zoos or otherwise allowing animals to come into contact with visitors, and plead people to wash their hands if they do happen to come into contact with a farm animal. The office is also charged with the responsibility of ensuring that livestock are healthy before they are brought to the fair.
E. coli comes in many different varieties, and typically makes its home in the intestines of humans and other mammals. The majority of E. coli strains are harmless, and in many cases beneficial to the ultimate end of digestion.
Some E. coli strains, however, can pose a huge threat to intestinal and overall health. E. coli strains transmitted via contaminated water, food, or other animals or people can lead to diarrhea and other illnesses.
While there are numerous different E. coli strains, they are broken up into different pathotypes. Six of these pathotypes are linked to diarrhea and are known as diarrheagenic E. coli as a whole.
Symptoms of severe E. coli infections include stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Fevers are rare, though body temperature can rise as high as 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Some infections are relatively mild, while others can be life threatening. Most E. coli infections last between five and seven days.
As many as 10 percent of people who are diagnosed with an E. coli infection develop a serious condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is the same condition that led to the Maine toddler’s death. Early warning signs of HUS include a drop in the frequency of urination, lethargy, and the loss of pinkness in the face and lower eyelids. People with HUS face the risk of kidney failure and should be hospitalized immediately. Many people recover from HUS in a few weeks, though some are not so lucky.
HUS can be extremely dangerous and painful. It results from the destruction of red blood cells in the body, which begins to clog the kidney’s filtering system. This leads to kidney failure, which in many cases proves to be fatal. It is possible to recover from HUS, but the process is long and arduous.
The best possible way to avoid such a nasty infection, as the Maine state veterinarian and other doctors have recommended, is to wash your hands after coming in contact with anything that could potentially harbor dangerous E. coli bacteria. Meat should also be thoroughly cooked before consumption, to a temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Raw milk and unpasteurized dairy products and juices also pose the risk of E. coli infection, and swallowing water from natural and manmade swimming areas like lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, swimming pools, and even “kiddie” pools can increase the risk of infection as well.
Keeping food out of contact with raw meats while preparing meals is another good idea. E. coli infection can be extremely serious, and it is important to know the risks and preventative measures you can take to protect yourself and your family.
The Herschaft family has stayed by Myles’ side for what appears like it will be a long hospitalization. His parents face missing work, long hours away from home, and piling medical bills. While the family was unable to be reached for comment, Victor has been keeping friends and family members updated about Myles’ condition by posting to social media. Friends of the Herschaft family have started a GoFundMe account on behalf of Myles, and have raised over $2,000 for the family as of Wednesday evening.
“We are taking it day by day,” wrote the father of the young boy. “Though his days are long, he continues to be the little fighter he always was.”