The strain of E. coli that caused an outbreak among people at the Milk Makers Fest in April has been found in the north end of the dairy barn where the event was held, according to a report released Wednesday, June 3.
The bacteria likely had been there prior to the event.
“The bottom line here is we can’t expect an environment like a barn to ever be completely free of pathogenic bacteria,” said Tom Kunesh, environmental health supervisor for the Whatcom County Health Department.
Kim Vlas, an officer with the Whatcom County Dairy Women that sponsored the event, said the group was glad the findings were out but members’ thoughts were on the families that have been dealing with illness.
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“We’re grateful that the source appears to have been identified. Our group is really focused on the families here still. We don’t want to lose sight of that,” Vlas said.
About 1,325 Whatcom County first-grade students, plus the teachers and parents who accompanied them, from all school districts in Whatcom County went to the annual event April 21-23 at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden.
“As far as our investigation has shown, the event was run largely as it has been run in the past,” Kunesh said.
County and state health officials have been investigating the outbreak, along with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 25 people are confirmed to have been sickened by what’s known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli 0157: H7.
Most of those who’ve been ill were first-graders.
Among the investigation’s findings into the bacterial outbreak:
• This variety of E. coli can survive in the environment for up to 42 weeks, health officials said, and any area where animals have been kept should be considered contaminated.
• Tests confirmed the outbreak strain was found in the manure bunker, hay maze area, bleachers by the east wall and bleachers by the west wall of the dairy barn, which has been identified as the likely source of the outbreak. Samples were collected April 30 and May 13. Negative results don’t rule out contamination in other parts of the barn.
• People who said they washed or sanitized their hands before eating lunch were less likely to become sick. Heath officials interviewed people who were sick and those who didn’t become ill to find out what they might have done differently.
• Children who said they always bit their nails were more likely to become sick.
• Leaving animal areas without washing hands might have contributed to an increased risk of transmission.
• Eating in animal areas might have contributed to an increased risk of transmission.
Jim Baron, manager for the Northwest Washington Fair, released a statement Wednesday after health officials released a summary of their investigation.
“We have been working closely with the Department of Health and the CDC to help determine how this outbreak happened, and what we can do to make events safer for those who join any activity at the Northwest Washington Fair,” Baron said.
“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. “What we do know is that the most effective way to prevent contamination is through common-sense steps, including appropriate hand-washing and sanitization.”
Investigators also recommended that event organizers, as well as the public, take certain measures to stop the spread of infection, including:
• Evaluate and update plans for cleaning and disinfecting, especially surfaces with high levels of hand contact such as doors and hand railings.
• Restrict access to areas more likely to be contaminated with animal manure.
• Make sure people have access to places where they can wash their hands using soap, water and disposable towels.
• Put up signs and otherwise remind people to wash their hands when they leave areas where there were animals.
• Store, prepare or serve food and beverages only in non-animal areas.
“A lot of these measures have already been in place so it’s more of lets revisit that and lets look for opportunities to improve,” Kunesh said.
Symptoms of the illness include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea that is often bloody, and vomiting. People become infected when they swallow minute amounts of feces, usually not visible to the naked eye.
“In our conversations with the CDC and others, we all acknowledge that finding ways to reduce the threat of the transmission of bacteria is an evolving process. 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,” Baron said.
“Our thoughts continue to be with the families affected by the April outbreak and we wish them comfort through the healing process,” he added.
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.
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 were secondary illnesses, too, of people who lived in the same home as someone who attended the event and became ill.
“It’s all about the environment and how do to you try and minimize the exposure that kids have,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, the Washington state epidemiologist for communicable diseases. “This could’ve happened to any event around the state of Washington.”
Of the 25 people who were sickened, 10 were hospitalized and six developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a life-threatening complication of E. coli illness.
Nine of those hospitalized were children and one was an adult.