UPDATE: The Whatcom County Health Department is now reporting 32 cases stemming from an e. coli outbreak at a dairy in Lynden. Four people have been hospitalized for their symptoms.
The Whatcom County Health Department (WCHD) is investigating the outbreak. While the source of the illness has not been found, all of the cases so far have been linked to the Milk Makers Festival at the Northwest Whatcom Fairgrounds on April 21. More than 1,000 primary school students from throughout the county visited the festival as a field trip between April 21-23.
WCHD has identified Shiga toxin-producing e.coli (STEC), which can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever and vomiting. Severe cases could lead to bloody diarrhea, kidney failure or a breakdown of red blood cells.
Health department officers are interviewing subjects to determine a common source, and are monitoring family members for any sign of the disease. The main sources of e. coli illness are contaminated food or water and contact with livestock, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Most of the cases identified so far have been in first-graders.
The Blaine school district has posted a notice on its website alerting families of Blaine Primary School students about the possibility of infection. Health officials are telling parents to alert the health department if their child attended the Milk Makers Festival and comes down with diarrhea before Friday, May 1. Children afflicted with diarrhea should not return to school for at least 24 hours.
Whatcom County Dairy Women, the nonprofit organization that sponsored the festival, posted to their Facebook page that hand sanitizer stations were set up for children as they entered and exited any trailers with animals. Children also drank pasteurized chocolate milk from the dairy. The milk is an unlikely source for the infection, since pasteurization kills most strains of e. coli, according to the CDC.
Greg Stern with the WCHD said antibiotics and anti diarrhea medication can make the infection worse, and could even lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause damaged red blood cells and kidney failure. Stern said the best thing to do for people showing symptoms is to stay hydrated.
Stern stressed the importance of hand washing with soap and running water, especially after interacting with animals or dirt.
“Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can certainly cut down the risk, but they’re not a substitute for soap and water,” he said.
For more information, contact the Whatcom County Health Department at 360/676-6724. For information on e. coli, visit the CDC’s website at cdc.gov/ecoli/general/index.html.