AUGUSTA — The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention could not connect the recent E. coli-related illnesses of two children to the Oxford County Fair or anything else.

The CDC has closed its investigation and labeled the cause of the E. coli undetermined.

“The reality is that the majority of cases we investigate end up with an undetermined cause,” said Dr. Siiri Bennett, Maine’s state epidemiologist, in a statement released Friday.

“While we know the two children were infected by the same molecular strain of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, or STEC, that same strain was not found in any of the samples that we tested here in Maine, or in the samples we sent to the U.S. CDC,” Bennett said.

Colton Guay, 20 months old, of Poland died at Maine Medical Center in Portland in early October after contracting hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a severe E. coli complication. Another boy, 17-month-old Myles Herschaft of Auburn also contracted HUS. He recovered.

The families didn’t know each other. The parents met while doctors treated their sons at the same Portland hospital.

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But both boys had attended the Oxford County Fair. Colton’s father, Jon Guay, has said he and his wife, Beth, believe the boys may have contracted HUS after being exposed to E. coli bacteria while petting farm animals there.

The Maine CDC and the state veterinarian at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry began an investigation into the possible link to the fair in late September. Common food items were also investigated.

One sample from animal pens tested positive for the presence of STEC. However, recent lab tests from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that sample did not match the strain that caused the children’s illness.

A second sample from the petting zoo area tested positive for Shiga toxins, but E. coli could not be identified. The U.S. CDC repeatedly tested the sample, but no STEC was found.

William Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer who specializes in civil cases involving E. coli and who represented families in the infamous Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in the 1990s, is representing the Guay and Herschaft families. He wasn’t surprised that lab testing failed to determine where the boys got E. coli. 

“It’s highly unusual in any kind of outbreak, whether it’s a food-borne illness outbreak or a petting zoo outbreak, to have fecal matter left over that tests positive, that’s a match to ill people or people who died,” Marler said Friday.

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“In the Chipotle outbreak, they’ve tested several hundred different products and they’re all negative,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the outbreak didn’t happen. It just means that you can’t definitively say it was the lettuce or the cilantro or whatever.”

He believes the boys contracted E. coli from their one shared experience: the petting zoo.

“It doesn’t change my view,” he said of the testing.

Marler is conducting his own investigation into the boys’ cases. After that is finished, he said, the families will decide on a next step.

Marler has said the families’ options include pushing for more stringent state laws to prevent such cases from happening again and filing a lawsuit against the person or group responsible for the outbreak.

Myles was released from the hospital in mid-October. Marler said the toddler is doing better, though there is a risk of long-term damage to his kidneys.

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The boys were not the only ones to report HUS this year in Androscoggin County. In June, a 2-year-old girl from Androscoggin County reportedly experienced kidney failure. Her father believes she contracted E. coli bacteria during a visit to a York Beach zoo and amusement park. Three cases of HUS were also reported in York County this year, state officials have said.

E. coli can be found in food, water, unpasteurized dairy products and juices, as well as in humans and animals. Many strains of E. coli are harmless.

Symptoms of HUS include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, but can progress to kidney failure, brain seizures and death.

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