It’s Fall y’all. You know what that means. Falling leaves, shorter days, corn mazes, and beautiful weather for petting zoos. All of the fun childhood memories come back to us as we get to experience it over and over again with our families.
But something scary might be lurking in the corn maze. No, I am not talking about a serial killer on the loose. That is a topic for a whole other blog. I mean Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli. And these may be the culprit for the Utah Ecoli case spike.
What is E. coli?
E. coli is a bacteria that normally resides in the intestines of animals and people. There are all kinds of E. coli strains out there, and some are harmless or even essential to a healthy intestinal tract. As you may have heard, there are some that are far more sinister. Other strains of E. coli are pathogenic – meaning they can cause harm to humans or animals.
One of the scariest of the pathogenic E. coli’s are known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli or STEC for short. This strain of E. coli is the one your often hear about in the news and often associated with foodborne outbreaks.
Illness usually begins around 3 to 4 days after exposure. Exposure occurs through what is known as fecal-oral transmission. This is a nice way of saying someone’s infected poop somehow got into your digestive tract. While you don’t think about going around eating someone’s feces, you come in contact with more poop than you would like to think about. From poor hygiene habits of sick individuals to lapses in handwashing before eating or touching your mouth, you are exposed more than you realize. Don’t think about what is lurking on that hand rail or on the door you push open.
Symptoms of E. coli infection often start with mild stomach pain or non-bloody diarrhea and worsen over several days. STEC infection often include bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and maybe a low-grade fever. People tend to get better in about 5 to 7 days without any medical treatment. Though some may experience more serious infection.
About 5 to 10% of STEC infections develop a potentially life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, also known as HUS. This is a type of kidney failure associated with STEC infection. Symptoms of HUS often include decreased frequency of urination, paleness in cheeks and inside of lower eyelids, and feelings of tiredness. Those with HUS must be hospitalized immediately or they risk kidney failure and other serious problems. Most will recover from HUS within a few weeks, but for some unfortunate others permanent damage may occur or even death.
Why Are We Talking About E. coli?
Enough of the scary, but true stuff. Why are we talking about E. coli? Well, it seems that there has been a recent uptick in E. coli infections, particularly in the state of Utah. But I suspect it is more widespread than that. Are we talking about an outbreak? Should we be checking our pantries and refrigerators for an offending product? Not exactly. At least not right now.
While not localized in Utah, Utah’s health department has noted a spike out of the normal trend. According to a report, there have been 20 cases of STEC along the Wasatch Front and in the Central and Southwestern regions of Utah. A reported 11 cases were patients under 18 and 6 people have been hospitalized so far. Thankfully there have been no deaths reported.
Is this out of the ordinary? Epidemiologist Kenneth Davis of the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) says yes. “For the past five years, Utah has averaged about 13 cases of STEC during the month of October,” says Davis. “An average of 113 STEC cases and 25 hospitalizations are reported each year in Utah. This increase in October is higher than normally expected. State and local health department partners are working on investigating the illnesses and identify the source or sources of infection.
Fingers Pointing to Fall Festivities
While not necessarily a definitive source, many fall activities such as corn mazes and petting zoos expose families to harmful E. coli bacteria. From kicking up bacteria in the soil in the corn maze, touching everything and then enjoying a festival treat you are exposing yourself and your family to all kinds of germs.
Don’t get me started on the exposure risk at petting zoos. Davis believes that the E. coli spike may be contributed to people failing to wash their hands after coming in contact with farm animals. Even the cleanest of petting zoos has animals who poop. It is a natural thing. Everybody poops. Baby goats make cute little balls that ping as they hit the ground. Miniature horses make not so miniature manure piles. Little chicks leave their little drops around. It is expected. “Just being in contact with any sort of manure is a good way to get E. coli,” says Davis.
You don’t have to actually touch the animal to become exposed. Most farm animals, whether petting zoo or not, don’t have the best hygiene. Anything in or around the animal enclosures may be contaminated with trace amounts of poop, which translates to E. coli EVERYWHERE.
One Petting Zoo is Extra Vigilant
Media reports that no one has gotten sick at Cross E Ranch located in North Salt Lake, and Dalon Hinckley wants to keep it that way. The farm is littered with signs that say “Wash your hands. Keep them clean,” he says. They keep sufficient stock of hand sanitizers and hand washing stations throughout the pettings zoo and food areas. He says that thousands of people come to enjoy this six-generation farm each weekend and he has gallons of hand sanitizer ready for them.
“When you come to a farm people think oh it’s nature and all natural. Yes, it is, but you should still wash your hands,” says Hinckley. Hand washing is the first defense against infection.
Have Fun, But Keep Your Family Safe
Don’t give up on this fall favorite. Unless of course you or someone in your family is immune compromised. Just take a few extra precautions to ensure you enjoy this fun memory safely.
Wash your hands! Wash your hands before you eat and after your touch ANYTHING or enter the animal enclosure. Keep an eye on little ones who might put their hands, or gasp, other things into their mouths. Change clothes after the trip to the petting zoo. Wouldn’t hurt to wash off those shoes too. They could be tracking those germs into your house, contaminating your home.
It doesn’t take much to help prevent an unnecessary illness. Have fun, but keep your family safe.
If you believe you have developed an E coli infection from visiting a petting zoo, a farm, or a corn maze, we want you to know that an E coli Lawyer at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC is currently investigating this matter and offering free legal consultations. Our lawyer, Jory Lange became a lawyer to help make our communities and families safer.
If you or a loved one have become ill with E coli, you can call 833.330.3663 for a free legal consultation or complete the form here.
By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)