LEWISTON — A local family is grieving the loss of their 20-month-old son and wants to make others aware of the potential risks of allowing small children to touch farm animals at petting zoos such as those at Maine’s agricultural fairs.

The boy’s father, Jon Guay, said Tuesday that he and his wife, Beth, fear their son, Colton, and another boy may have contracted HUS, or hemolytic uremic syndrome, after being exposed to E. coli bacteria while petting farm animals at the Oxford County Fair in September.

A spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control said Tuesday that the agency and the state veterinarian at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are investigating that possibility.

The other boy, 17-month-old Myles Herschaft, of Auburn, is still battling a case of HUS, according a Facebook post made by his father, Victor, on Tuesday.

The illness, which is frequently preceded by severe diarrhea, attacks organs, frequently the liver and kidneys, often requiring patients to undergo dialysis. In Colton’s case, however, it was his brain that was attacked, Jon Guay said.

Younger children can be more susceptible to the illness because their immune systems are not fully developed, according to health officials.

“It began with severe diarrhea and ended with massive brain seizures that ultimately took his life,” Jon Guay wrote in a Facebook post to family and friends.

Guay said he learned of the other child’s illness when he met that child’s parents at Maine Medical Center in Portland as nurses and doctors were battling to save Colton’s life. 

Guay, a deputy with the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office, said the only common occurrences he is aware of between the two boys are their age and the fact they both went to the same petting zoo at about the same time.

Guay said his family visited the fair on the morning of  Sept. 17 for about three hours and again on the evening of Sept. 19 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. He said Colton first fell ill with cold-like symptoms on Sept. 22 that progressed rapidly.

“He went from being a perfectly healthy little boy, who hadn’t really been sick a day in his life, to a week-and-a-half later, he dies,” Guay said. His hope is to alert other parents of the risk and to see if any others who may have become ill after visiting the fair come forward. 

John Martins, a spokesman for the Maine CDC, said that agency and the state veterinarian at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry were working together to investigate any common links in the two cases, including the fact both children visited the petting zoo and other animal barns at the Oxford County Fair in Oxford.

“Laboratory tests conducted on Tuesday determined the presence of what’s known as ‘Shiga toxins’ that are associated with E. coli,” Martins wrote in a message to the Sun Journal.

“As the agricultural fair season winds down, it’s important that those who are exposed to animals and their environment wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water. This offers the best protection against E. coli. If soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer can be used.”

Officials at the Fryeburg Fair, the state’s largest and last fair of the season, said Tuesday that the animals at their petting zoo were not the same that were at the Oxford County Fair.

State Veterinarian Dr. Michele Walsh said detecting E. coli in farm animals is very difficult because it can be present in both healthy and unhealthy animals and that most mammals, including humans, have kinds of E. coli as part of the natural flora of their systems.

Walsh said the Department of Agriculture works closely with the state’s 26 privately run agricultural fairs each year to make sure they are taking all necessary precautions, including ensuring there is adequate signage to warn and remind people to clean their hands. She said the state also has a presentation during the Maine Agricultural Fair Association’s annual meeting on specific animal and human health-related topics and on emerging trends and health risks.

Beyond that, staff members from the department inspect every animal at all of Maine’s fairs, checking their health to help protect both people and animals from diseases that might be transmitted between them, like swine flu.

Walsh said she inspected the petting zoo at the Oxford County Fair and everything was in proper working order and the animals there appeared healthy.

The amount of finger food that’s available at fairs adds to the challenge of protecting humans from the spread of disease.

“And it’s always a challenge with younger kids,” Walsh said, because smaller children are particularly prone to putting their fingers into their mouths and, depending on the age, have immature immune systems as well.

She said good hand-washing or the use of sanitizer is crucial.

An official with the Oxford County Fair told the Portland Press Herald that signs were posted near the petting zoo urging people to clean their hands.

Walsh called the illnesses that were reported by the CDC a real tragedy but said she didn’t want to put blame on anybody.

“We need to continue to be vigilant when going to visit animals,” she said, but noted she hoped people wouldn’t stop having interactions with animals at Maine’s fairs because it’s a key way for children and adults to learn about animals and the state’s strong agricultural heritage. 

Walsh said the state was already considering new ways to help make people aware of the risks of bacteria and the importance of good hygiene before and after coming in contact with farm animals, including possibly creating video message that could be played in a loop at fairs for those waiting to visit a petting zoo.

She said the CDC and her department were collaborating to determine the possible origin of the illness. She said if the two children did contract HUS from the fair, it would be a “very rare” occurrence.

“There is always a risk when people interact with animals,” Walsh said. “We shouldn’t be fear mongering, either, but this does give us a heightened sense of awareness.”

Jon Guay said his family is coping as best they can with what is unimaginable for any parent, but he also wants to make sure other people are very careful and understand the risks.

“I didn’t even know about this bacteria that can be contracted by touching farm animals,” Jon Guay said. “Had I known, we wouldn’t even have gone.”

[email protected]

I apologize for not posting anything sooner concerning the disease my son has gone through but it was simply too painful…

Posted by Jon Guay on Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Myles is keeping up the battle of his HUS. I just wanna say thank you for the ongoing support of family friends and even…

Posted by Victor Herschaft on Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Also read: What you need to know about E. coli


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