LEWISTON — State lab workers likely will need at least until next week to identify the source of bacteria that killed a Poland toddler and sickened an Auburn boy, a spokesman said Wednesday.

John Martins, director of internal and program communications at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the Maine Center for Disease Control is working to identify the strain of Shiga toxin producing E. coli believed to have taken the life of 20-month-old Colton Guay of Poland on Monday. Myles Herschaft of Auburn, who is 17 months old, also was stricken with HUS, or hemolytic uremic syndrome, after being exposed to E. coli bacteria.

Both were hospitalized at Maine Medical Center in Portland. After comparing notes, the parents of the two toddlers determined that both boys had visited a petting zoo at the Oxford County Fair in Oxford in September, where they had physical contact with animals.

Martins said it’s too early to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak. First, lab workers must isolate the specific strain of E. coli that infected the toddlers; they might have the same strain or different strains. Next, scientists will need to identify the strain or strains of E. coli in a possible source or sources to determine exposure at a certain place and time.

Martins said the lab expects to have identified by early next week the specific strain or strains of bacteria that infected the boys. He said the state agency has not ruled out any possible sources of contamination, including tainted ground beef or raw vegetables.

“Our surveillance continues and I have no knowledge about possible causes that have been eliminated,” Martins wrote the Sun Journal in an email.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the only known common link between the two boys was attending the Oxford County Fair. Interviewing the parents of the toddlers is key, Martins said.

“A more complex set of questions is posed to either those who may have been ill or, in this case, were with the children,” Matins said. “We ask questions about where people may have traveled, where they ate and drank and many other questions to analyze if there is any commonality in the cases.”

Since the Sun Journal’s reporting Tuesday of Guay’s death, Martin said his state agency hasn’t received any additional reports of E. coli infection, nor has his agency seen an increase in telephone traffic from the public on the subject.

The last time a case of HUS was reported in Maine was last year, Martins said. Since 2010, Maine has logged a total of 10 reported cases of HUS, including the latest two. There have been no more than two cases in any given year over the past five years, he said.

William Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in civil cases involving Shiga toxin producing E. Coli that cause human illness, said those toxic bacteria are found in animals, such as cattle, goats and sheep.

“It’s primarily a cattle bacteria,” he said, “but not necessarily.”

Outbreaks at state and county fairs are “unfortunately, pretty common,” he said. “Frankly, the outbreaks happen so often, it’s hard to keep up.”

His law firm, Marler Clark, Attorneys at Law, has created a website, www.fair-safety.com, devoted to fair and petting zoo safety. His firm has been involved in related cases in half a dozen states.

That website warns of the possible dangers associated with such venues, especially for more vulnerable populations. At greater risk are the young, the elderly, pregnant women and those with suppressed or compromised immune systems, such as people infected with HIV/AIDS, cancer victims and organ transplant recipients.

Marler said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommendations on its website, http://www.cdc.gov/features/animalexhibits/, for precautions at fairs and petting zoos.

Animals can carry the toxic E. coli without displaying any symptoms, Marler said.

“The real way to stop these things is to limit animal contact, especially with kids under the age of 5,” he said, “who . . .  it’s pretty difficult to make sure they don’t touch something then put their hands in their mouths.”

The bacteria have to be ingested in order to cause harm, he said. But the amount needed to be harmful is minuscule, he said.

“About 50 bacterium are enough to kill you. And 100,000 of them would fit on the head of a pin,” Marler said.

Martins said among the list of preventive measures recommended by the CDC is hand-washing after exposure to animals or their environments at farms, petting zoos, fairs and even backyards. Soap and water is best, he said, but hand sanitizer can be used when soap and water aren’t available. Hand-washing is recommended before eating, especially after any contact with animals or their environments, he said.

In 2004, North Carolina passed a law named for a young client represented by Marler’s law firm that requires that state’s Department of Agriculture to adopt the CDC guidelines as regulations.

Dr. William Salomon of Poland, who practiced as a pediatrician for 20 years in Maine and has a master’s degree in public health, said Wednesday that these types of outbreaks are preventable.

“I find it particularly tragic that this child’s father basically says, ‘I didn’t know about this’. Realistically, when you live in a state that has agriculture and we live in a more rural area. This is not Portland or Boston. People have farm animals and livestock, people know this. It’s a shame that kids in school aren’t taught this in both science and health classes,” Salomon said.

There are likely three reasons for that lack of education, he said. “No. 1, they would say, it is spending too much class time. No. 2 is that it is too complicated to teach. But No. 3 is political,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to scare people, right? By telling about these bad diseases and how they may be transmitted. And someone might sue somebody. There are all sorts of excuses not to teach this.”

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