Barely a week after visiting a Maine petting zoo, a 20-month-old boy contracted hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and died last Monday. Another boy who visited the same zoo was also hospitalized.

Health officials have started to probe the two cases, and laboratory results have pinpointed Shiga toxins, produced by an E.coli strain that causes severe illness, as the likely culprit in the death of Colton Guay and the admission of Myles Herschaft to the Maine Medical Center.

According to a statement from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the two toddlers visited the petting zoos and animal barns at the Oxford Country Fair.

Maine CDC is now coordinating with the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry – as well as the state veterinarian – to investigate the separate cases.

Jon Guay, the father of the first victim, said in an interview that Colton was admitted to the Maine Medical Center for severe diarrhea and died a week after due to HUS. It is believed that his son contracted the bacteria via simply interacting with farm animals at the fair.

On the other hand, Myles was in critical condition at the same hospital on Wednesday and then stabilized, having been diagnosed with the same condition. A Facebook post from his father, Victor, stated that the toddler “is keeping up the battle,” with a stomach flu that progressed rapidly as his initial symptom.

E.coli lives in human and animal digestive tracts and is typically harmless. But the Shiga-producing strain can result in HUS in a small number of cases, specifically in young children below age 5.

“A complex series of things happen. Red blood cells get destroyed, and that and other factors associated with the toxins cause renal failure, and the kidneys get damaged,” warned Kevin Cranston, director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Maine CDC has not identified exactly what caused the death and sickness, and is still looking at factors such as foods, places the children may have traveled, and “everything,” said Maine CDC spokesman John Martins.

E.coli can be found in animal feces, particularly among ruminants such as goats and cows. Children under 5 are particularly vulnerable because their immunity is not yet as developed as that of adults.

Experts, however, agree that healthy children need not stay away from petting zoos, as it is quite rare for them to contract HUS as a consequence of farm animal exposure.

The best preventive measure is “vigilance on the part of parents,” with kids washing their hands and wearing a new set of clean clothes after touching animals, advised Cranston.

Photo: Dave Herholz | Flickr

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