In the same week that a two-year-old Charlotte-area boy has finally been released from the hospital after a life-threatening E. coli O157:H7 infection, North Carolina health officials are linking the outbreak that sickened him to visiting an animal barn at this year’s North Carolina State Fair.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, after a nearly month-long investigation, officials have determined that a building holding pigs, goats, and sheep at the state fair is most likely the source of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened at least 27. Many visitors, including children, passed through the building looking at and petting the animals.

This is the third time in seven years that the North Carolina State Fair has been linked to an E. coli outbreak. In 2004, a petting zoo operating at the fair was determined to be the source of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened as many as 108 people. In 2006, five people became ill after eating at the fair.

Now, E. coli attorney and safety advocate William Marler is calling on those in the animal exhibition industry nationwide to finally heed warnings and follow long-standing guidelines on animal-human interaction safety.

“The 2004 E. coli outbreak was roughly the twenty-fifth outbreak from animal-human contact and there hasn’t been any sign of a slow-down since,” said Marler, who sponsors a website devoted to fair safety. “This isn’t a new issue, and there are plenty of resources out there to prevent these types of things; there is simply no reason this should still be happening.”

The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians produces a set of guidelines aimed at reducing risks and improving safety at petting zoos and animal exhibits. Some of the major recommendations include:

• Wash hands after contact with animals to reduce the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.

• Do not allow food, drink, or pacifiers in animal areas.

• Include transition areas between animal areas and non-animal areas.

• Educate visitors about disease risk and prevention procedures.

• Properly care for and manage animals.

Attorneys at Marler Clark, and the 11 families they represent, are currently waiting on a ruling from the trial of their claims conducted in Durham, N.C. this last summer on claims against the State of North Carolina arising out of the 2004 outbreak.