July 9, 2013 -- A 2-year-old boy died from an E. coli bacterial infection that he, along with 106 other people, caught after visiting a petting zoo at a county fair, a lawsuit claims.
Hunter "Gage" LeFevers died last October, nearly two weeks after visiting the petting zoo at the Cleveland County Fair in North Carolina, which was owned and operated by the Tennessee-based Circle G Ranch: Wild Animal Park, and Camel Safari.
According to court documents, the boy pet several animals and touched straw bedding while in the petting zoo and later touched the ground and other surfaces that were contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.
E. coli bacteria is common and generally harmless, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that this particular strain, often spread by infected farm animal feces, causes serious gastrointestinal symptoms including bloody diarrhea in 5 percent to 10 percent of people who come in contact with it. Up to 5 percent of those who become severely ill -- about 60 people a year -- die from the infection.
In the complaint, Joshua and Jessica LeFevers say their son was supervised at all times and they followed all instructions given to them by employees and posted on signs. When they exited the zoo, they attempted to wash the boy's hands but the washing station was out of soap, according to the complaint.
After the boy fell ill, his parents took him to the hospital, they say in the complaint. Although he had bloody diarrhea, he wasn't admitted until he was taken to a pediatric clinic several days later, the complaint says. From there he was admitted to a second hospital where he was diagnosed with E. coli 0157:H7 infection and hemolytic uremic syndrome, a condition that predominantly strikes children and leads to anemia and kidney failure, according to the complaint.
"Gage LeFevers received intensive medical treatment including dialysis over the next several days in the Intensive Care Unit at Levine Children's Hospital," his parents say in the complaint.
Despite treatment, the boy died a few days later.
This isn't the first time North Carolina has had an E. coli outbreak caused by a contaminated petting zoo. In 2004, 108 visitors to the North Carolina State Fair reported getting sick from an E. coli 0157:H7 infection that was later traced back to the fair's petting zoo. The following year, the state passed "Aedin's Law" in honor of 2-year-old Aedin Grey who fell ill during the outbreak.
The law mandates all petting zoos operating in the state provide soap-and-water hand washing stations within 10 feet of the exit, signage warning of the potential risk of animal contact, and fences separating humans from animal pens. It also bars visitors from bringing food, drinks, baby bottles or pacifiers into animal pens.
Speaking on behalf of the LeFevers, their attorney, Fred Pritzker, said the fair and petting zoo failed to follow the law and didn't do enough to protect patrons, including his clients. He said that among other infractions, they didn't provide adequate hand washing stations, properly dispose of animal waste or take adequate measures to control feces contamination to other parts of the fairgrounds through rain runoff.
O. Max Gardner, III, the attorney for The Cleveland County Fair said in an email statement to ABC that the fair's animal contact exhibits were fully inspected by state and local health agencies and found to be in full compliance with all applicable laws. He said that the fair also went above and beyond what they were legally required to do, placing signage and hand-washing stations in areas not required under Aedin's law.
"Despite this level of compliance by the Fair, this outbreak demonstrates that outbreaks may occur even when thorough control measures have been implemented," he said in the statement.
Gardner also said that the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the Cleveland County Health Department initiated a comprehensive review of Fair activities and determined the source of the E. coli outbreak was the Circle G Ranch petting zoo.
David Hood, lawyer for the Circle G Ranch, responded in a statement saying in part, "…. The Circle G Ranch followed all the regulations spelled out under state law, and the state investigator agreed with that conclusion. The Ranch did not screw up and cause the problem."
The public health investigation determined that the petting zoo was the source of the deadly E. coli and that it likely spread to seating areas and the parking lot of the fair due to heavy rains. However, Julie Henry, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said the purpose of the report was "not to assign blame, but to determine the source of the outbreak and how to prevent it from happening again."
"It's really important after attending one of these petting zoos to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Sanitizer is as good as soap and water if there's no visible dirt or debris but if you see dirt, you must use soap. Ideally you should try to use both if you can," said Dr. Johanna Goldfarb, director of the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Pediatric Infectious Disease.
Goldfarb also said that careful handwashing rules should apply whether children are visiting the petting zoo or the mall, especially before eating.
"You don't know where their hands have been and you don't know what's on everything they've touched," she said.
The LeFevers initially are seeking a minimum of $10,000 in damages for negligence, and medical and funeral expenses. Pritzker said he expected to ask the court for a substantially greater sum.