By Steve Guntli
As of May 6, 55 people have fallen ill from E. coli sickness after a field trip in Lynden. Eight people have been hospitalized for their symptoms.
The Whatcom County Health Department (WCHD) is investigating the outbreak. While the source of the outbreak has not been determined, all of the cases so far have been linked to the Milk Makers Festival at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds on April 21. Approximately 1,325 primary school students from Blaine, Bellingham, Ferndale, Nooksack and Lynden school districts visited the festival on a field trip between April 21 and 23.
WCHD has identified the bacteria as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), which can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever and vomiting. Severe cases could lead to bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and breakdown of red blood cells. The bacteria are most commonly spread through animal fecal matter. The Milk Maker’s Festival, intended to introduce young children to farming, featured a petting zoo with small horses, rabbits, sheep, chickens and a baby cow.
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 Centers for Disease Control and
Most of the cases identified so far have been in first-graders, but some adults and older children who were helping out at the event have also fallen ill. Out of the 55 cases identified, the state lab has positively identified STEC in 23. The remaining 22 cases have shown symptoms of E. coli sickness and were present at the event in Lynden, but were still waiting on lab results.
Investigators are also monitoring family members and anyone within close proximity to an affected person, since e. coli can be spread to people in the same household. Investigators do expect more cases at this point as the usual incubation period has now passed.
The Blaine school district posted a notice on its website alerting families of Blaine Primary School students about the possibility of infection. The notice said one of the confirmed cases is a Blaine student. Health officials asked parents to alert the health department if their child attended the Milk Makers Festival and came 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, but WCHD officer Greg Stern said the department isn’t ruling anything out yet.
“We’re still looking at all possible options,” Stern said. “There are a lot of potential sources in barnyard environments such as this.”
Stern 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 washing hands 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.
Stern said the Whatcom County Dairy Women have been cooperative, and hopes the outbreak won’t discourage people from visit agricultural events like the Milk Makers Festival in the future.
“These events are really good for the county and the farmers in the area,” Stern said. “We just need to make sure people are aware of the risks and diligent in their hand washing if they’re going to attend.”
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.