CDC to help investigate E. coli outbreak linked to Lynden event

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to be in Whatcom County on Monday, May 11, to help investigate an E. coli outbreak linked to the Milk Makers Fest in Lynden.

A total of 47 people have been sickened, according to an update provided by the Whatcom County Health Department on Friday, May 8.

Eight people have been hospitalized.

“They have a lot more resources to be able to help in the on-the-ground investigation and the data analysis,” said Greg Stern, Whatcom County health officer.

County public health officials also have been working with the state Communicable Disease Epidemiology as they search for what could have caused the outbreak of of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

The main sources for E. coli are contaminated food, water and surfaces, along with contact with livestock.

Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist for communicable diseases, said he asked the CDC to come to Washington state.

“I don’t think Whatcom or the state haven’t done a good job. It’s just I could use extra hands on this,” Lindquist said Friday.

About 1,325 Whatcom County first-graders, plus the teachers and parents who accompanied them, from all of the school districts in Whatcom County went to the event April 21-23 at the Northwest Washington Fair & Event Center in Lynden. The 22nd annual festival was sponsored by Whatcom County Dairy Women.

The Milk Makers Fest introduced young students to farming. It also gave them a chance to pet farm animals, including small horses, sheep, rabbits, chickens and a calf. There was a hay maze and scavenger hunt as well.

Most of those who’ve been ill are first-graders.

People who helped set up and take down the event — on April 20 and April 24 — also were among those who have been sickened. There also have been secondary illnesses of people who lived in the same home as someone who was at the event and was sickened.

“The data is still being collected and the analysis will take a bit of time,” Stern said.

Symptoms of the bacterial illness include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea that is often bloody, and vomiting. Illness occurs up to eight days after people are infected, which happens when they swallow minute amounts of feces, usually not visible to the naked eye.

The infection can develop into a potentially life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome.

The health department is continuing to interview those who have been sickened to find out whether there was a common food or water source or activity, such as the petting zoo or other contact with livestock.

As public health officials continue their investigation, Lindquist said getting more boots on the ground with the CDC will help with:

• interviewing the people at the event and looking at who was sickened and who wasn’t to find out what they did differently. The point is to “make sure we are covering all possibilities, even ones we can’t think of right now,” Lindquist said.

• going back over all of the environmental risks to make sure something hasn’t been missed. “I want a fresh set of eyes,” Lindquist said.

Lindquist was confident the source of the outbreak would be found and he sought to assure the parents of sick children.

“I know this is very concerning when you don’t understand what the source is,” Lindquist said. “Rest assured we are overturning every stone to find out and give families peace of mind.”