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E. coli outbreak at State Fair under investigation

Health officials are looking into an E. coli outbreak that infected some attendees of the annual North Carolina State Fair in October.

Officials are currently investigating 28 cases related to E. coli infections from the State Fair. Lab testing has confirmed 12 of the cases as being caused by E. coli, and 16 cases are still under review, according to North Carolina Public Health. As of Thursday, six individuals, including five children, remain hospitalized following the opening of the fair Oct. 13. No cases among Duke students have been reported.

Although many attended the fair this year, no students seem to have come in contact with the strain of E. coli, said Dr. William Purdy, executive director of Student Health. Purdy met with county health department officials regarding the outbreak Thursday morning.

“We have had several students with diarrhea but no more than we usually see this time of year,” Purdy wrote in an email Thursday. “At this late date, I would not expect to see any students infected, as symptoms would have developed by now.”

Public health officials are contacting randomly selected state fair attendees by email as part of the investigation. In an email Oct. 29, Megan Davies, epidemiologist and chief of state Division of Public Health’s epidemiology section, wrote that the fair has been the only identifiable link among those who came in contact with the bacteria. She added that officials are interviewing people who attended the fair but did not get sick in order to identify fair activities that may have been the source of the disease.

“The state Division of Public Health is leading the epidemiological investigation to try to determine the source of the outbreak,” said Brian Long, public affairs director for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

State Health Director Jeff Engel said the Division of Public Health has worked with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and counties across the state to identify those directly affected and to educate the public about the signs and symptoms of the illness.

“Our goal is to identify a specific source for the outbreak so that we can recommend precautions to prevent illness in the future,” Engel said.

Every year, E. coli infections cause more than 250,000 illnesses and approximately 100 deaths in the United States, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The bacteria is found in the feces of animals, such as cattle, sheep and goats. People risk infection when consuming water or food that comes in contact with either infected animals or the bacteria. Most U.S. outbreaks are associated with raw or under-cooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk or juice and leafy greens.

According to its website, the Division of Public Health recommends good hygiene and frequent hand-washing to prevent the spread of the disease—particularly after using the bathroom and touching animals, as well as before eating, drinking or preparing food.

Purdy said he recommends people also exercise, eat well and get enough rest each night to prevent falling ill.

“As we near the end of the semester, this is the time that students tend to get less sleep and are under more stress, which makes it easier to get sick,” he said.

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