A young women feeds goats at the San Diego County Fair with a sign behind her instructing: "Please wash hands when exiting animal area."
A young women feeds goats at the San Diego County Fair petting zoo Thursday with a sign behind her instructing: “Please wash hands when exiting animal area.” Photo by Ken Stone

A 2-year-old boy has died from complications of Escherichia coli bacteria — E. Coli — after contact with animals at the San Diego County Fair, authorities said late Friday.

The county Health and Human Services Agency reported four confirmed pediatric cases of Shiga-toxin-producing E. Coli possibly tied to the petting zoo in one of the Del Mar Fairgrounds barns.

Public access to all animal areas has been closed, including the petting zoo.

Fairgrounds CEO Tim Fennell and fair deputy general manager Katie Mueller at hastily called late-night press conference. Image via 10News.com on YouTube.com

“Our sympathies go out to the family of the child that died from this illness,” said Dr. Wilma J. Wooten, county public health officer. “While most people recover from this illness without complications, 5 to 10 percent of people diagnosed with STEC develop the life-threatening kidney infection.”

Fairgrounds CEO Tim Fennell told a late-night press conference that fair officials didn’t learn of the death until four days after the fact. They were told of three nonfatal cases Friday morning.

“Our hearts, our prayers, our thoughts go out to the family and friends of this young child,” he said only three hours after learning of the death. “We’re devastated.”

Fennell said it was the first such death in fairgrounds history, and “we’re taking all precautions and following all directives of the county health department.”

A “heartbroken” Katie Mueller, fair deputy general manager, said: “Safety always will be and will continue to be our No. 1 priority. We hope the people come out to the fair.”

Fennell later added: “The fair goes on (through July 4)” and spoke of “wonderful opportunities for entertainment.”

Fennell said “we went into action” as soon as fair officials were notified by the county.

Asked what led to the infection, the 27-year fair veteran said: “If I had to speculate, I suspect it could be walking through the livestock area. Getting sneakers contaminated.”

He said Saturday’s livestock auction for FFA and 4H youngsters would continue as scheduled.

In the 15-minute press meeting, Mueller noted signage throughout the fair advising visitors to wash their hands at the washing stations available.

The HHSA Epidemiology Program and the county Department of Environmental Health are investigating the cluster of four infections, the county said.

The affected children, ranging in age from 2 to 13, visited the fair from June 8 to June 15 and had symptoms from June 10 to June 16.

Three of the four cases were not hospitalized, the county said. Hometowns of the victims weren’t immediately disclosed.

But a 2-year-old boy was hospitalized and died June 24, said the county.

“The source of the E.Coli bacteria is under investigation, but all children had a report of visiting the animal areas or the petting zoo, or had other animal contact at the San Diego Fair,” officials said.

County DEH also re-inspected food facilities that were visited by the children but found no link to the cases, the county said.

Most people with a STEC infection start feeling sick three to four days after eating or drinking something that contains the bacteria. However, illnesses can start anywhere from one to 10 days after exposure.

Symptoms vary from person-to-person and often include:

  • Severe abdominal cramps.
  • Watery or bloody diarrhea (3 or more loose stools in a 24 hour period).
  • And vomiting.

Symptoms may occur with or without a fever.

County officials said that, when present, the fever usually is not very high (less than 101 degrees). Most people get better within five to seven days.

Health alert from San Diego County. (PDF)

Some infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life-threatening. The public is asked to contact a healthcare provider if you have experienced these symptoms on or after June 8, and especially if you have diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days or diarrhea that is accompanied by a fever higher than 102 degrees, or blood in the stool, or so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down and you pass very little urine.

“The most important step people should take to help prevent an STEC infection is to practice good hand-washing hygiene,” officials said. “Always wash your hands thoroughly after contact with animals or their environments (at farms, petting zoos, fairs, even your own backyard).

“Everyone, especially young children, older individuals, and people with weakened immune systems, should wash their hands before eating or drinking.”

A young woman feeds hungry goats Thursday at the fair’s petting zoo a day before such areas were closed to public access. Photo by Ken Stone

Updated at 11:45 p.m. June 28, 2019