A week after a visit to a traveling petting zoo, a couple from Poland, Maine, is mourning the tragic death of their 20-month-old son, Colton. The toddler died of complications related to the contraction of E. coli, which his parents believe he contracted after interacting with the animals.
Colton’s parents, Jon and Beth Guay, are devastated over the loss of their son, calling the ordeal a “nightmare” in a heartbreaking Facebook post:
What stands out in Guay’s post is the following:
“What started as a joyous occassion in learning that our next baby due in February was going to be a girl soon turned to fear and concern as Colton was admitted to the hospital for severe diarrhea. My son Colton died a week later of H.U.S (Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome) which is caused by a bacteria that releases a toxin that attacks the kidneys and other organs. In this case the brain. It is believed that he contracted it through simple interaction with farm animals at a local fair (based on other similar cases).”
Hemolytic-uremic syndrome is a complication caused by Escherichia coli, or E. coli, a common bacteria that lives in the digestive system. Mostly harmless, E. coli usually doesn’t cause any problems, unless a person were to contract a particularly virulent strain, which can in turn cause gastroenteritis and kidney problems, as was Colton’s case.
When Colton’s father mentions the similarity of his son’s case to other cases involving petting zoos, he is likely referring to another child, Myles, whom the Guays met — along with Myles’ parents — during their hospital stay and who also attended the petting zoo. That child is still battling HUS.
This wouldn’t be the first time a petting zoo was linked to an E. coli outbreak either. There was a string of outbreaks in 2005 in Florida, where 22 people were hospitalized after picking up a specific strain of the nasty bacteria.
Kids love petting zoos. Any parent who has been to a fair where fluffy ducklings and baby goats waddle side by side knows that the pens attract kids of all ages in force. And while E. coli outbreaks linked to animals and petting zoos are extremely rare, there are a number of precautions that experts and doctors suggest parents take to ensure that kids don’t pick up E. coli or other germs when they visit the enclosures.
1. Keep kids under age 5 away from petting zoos
It’s extremely likely that most parents don’t even know that the minimum “safe age” for a petting zoo enclosure is 5 years old, but that’s the age when children will be more equipped to fight off any germs they might pick up while they’re there.
2. Keep your eyes peeled
Take a look around. The petting zoo should be clean and well kept. There’s bound to be poo here and there, but a responsible zoo will have people onsite to clean it up pretty quickly. This is also a good time to remind your kids to stay away from the droppings.
3. Wash your hands and your children’s hands after visiting
Most petting zoos have hand sanitizer absolutely everywhere, and almost every parent carries some in a purse, pocket or diaper bag, but doctors maintain that the best way to prevent the spread of germs like E. coli is to wash your hands often with warm, soapy water.
4. If it goes in the mouth, keep it out of the pen
Don’t bring any food or utensils into the enclosure, including sippy cups, pacifiers and snacks. Be vigilant as well to make sure your child doesn’t put a finger, thumb or anything they find in the pen in their mouths, especially after touching the animals.
More: How to tell if your child has celiac disease
What makes cases like this particularly devastating is that the people most likely to be affected by a possible outbreak are children, since that’s who the zoos appeal to the most. Fortunately there are steps you can take to stay safe once you know the risks.