E. coli outbreak linked to dairy barn in CDC report

By Steve Guntli

The Whatcom County Health Department (WCHD) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have released their final investigative summary on the E. coli outbreak that affected dozens of people in April.

According to the report, multiple samples collected on April 30 and May 13 confirmed the presence of E. coli O157:57, or Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, in the north end of the dairy barn at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden.

The outbreak began in late April, after more than 1,300 Whatcom County elementary school students visited the Milk Makers Festival at the barn. The festival featured a hay maze and several areas where children could pet animals.

Investigators identified the outbreak strain in four areas inside the dairy barn: the manure bunker, the hay maze and the bleachers on both the east and west walls of the facility. Investigators believe the E. coli contamination likely occurred before the Milk Makers Festival, and all areas containing animals are kept should be assumed to be contaminated. The virus can survive for up to 42 weeks on contaminated surfaces.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stool and sometimes kidney problems.

The CDC also released the final case count for the outbreak. There were 25 confirmed cases, nine of which were secondary cases, people who didn’t attend the festival but had close contact with a person who did.

Nine children and one adult were hospitalized, and six people developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially life-threatening form of kidney failure. There were no deaths.

Health officials interviewed both confirmed cases to determine a pattern of behaviors and people who attended the festival at the same time but did not get sick. They found that the people who left animal petting areas without washing their hands were more likely to get sick than those who washed or sanitized their hands. There was also a large increase in infection in children who regularly bite their nails, and from students who reported eating their lunch in or near the animal pens.

Health officials advised event organizers and the public on methods to prevent outbreaks in the future. Event staff should update their restriction policies for people at particularly high risk of infection, which includes young children, senior citizens and pregnant women.

Members of the public should be diligent about hand washing with soap and water, and never eat in any areas where animals are penned.

Jim Baron, manager of the Northwest Washington Fair, wrote in a statement on June 3 that he and his staff have been working closely with the WCHD and the CDC to prevent outbreaks in the future.

“The reality is that any time groups host events in proximity to livestock, there is always a heightened chance of coming in contact with bacteria, including E. coli,” he said. “Through our work, and with the cooperation of the health department and CDC, we will continue to examine, refine and enhance our efforts to make Northwest Washington Fair facilities safe for our guests.”

To view the full report, visit co.whatcom.wa.us.

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