See more of the story

A Minnetrista mother is suing the operator of the Minnesota State Fair after her son contracted an E. coli infection at the fair’s popular Miracle of Birth Center and suffered severe complications that left him hospitalized for 11 days and out of preschool for more than a month.

Christina VonderHaar said her son Thomas, now 5, suffered severe stomach pains and bloody diarrhea within days of the family visit to the fair, where the boy touched livestock in the animal exhibit and witnessed the birth of a calf. The suit seeks to recover the high costs of the boy’s hospitalization, but VonderHaar said she hopes it also compels the fair to increase sanitation at the exhibit and helps parents to learn from her experience.

“You couldn’t even touch his stomach, he was in such excruciating pain,” she recalled. “It was terrifying.”

While not identified by name, VonderHaar’s son was presumably one of 11 people with E. coli infections reported at the time of the fair, which a state health investigation traced primarily back to the Miracle of Birth Center.

Seven of the sickened fairgoers were admitted to hospitals for their infections.

A summary of the investigation, released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health, found that many of the sickened fairgoers had visited common locations such as Sweet Martha’s Cookies and the horse barn, but that the Miracle of Birth exhibit was the only statistically likely source of the outbreak because 10 of them had been there.

Hand-washing standards

Nine of the visitors had touched animals in the exhibit. The only patient who did not go into the Miracle of Birth nonetheless reported being across the street from the exhibit and eating a turkey leg there.

While the fair tries to reduce the risk of infection in the interactive agricultural exhibit through warning signs and hand-washing stations at the exits, the Health Department recommended additional steps.

State investigators found paper towel racks to be empty or soiled at hand-washing stations at the exits to the attraction and recommended automated dispensing systems or more frequent changeouts.

Signs encouraging hand-washing were found in the building, but state health officials said they feared that they get obscured by the crowds and lamented that volunteers at the exhibit no longer wore buttons reminding visitors to wash their hands.

Investigators also found that the fair did not strictly enforce recommendations by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians to forbid food or drink in interactive animal exhibits, and they recommended additional staff at entrances.

People tend to touch their mouths anyway but are at great risk if they touch contaminated animals and then touch food with their dirty hands, said Joni Scheftel, state public health veterinarian.

She credited the fair for hand sanitizer dispensers in the exhibit — considered one of the busiest animal exhibits in the nation — but stressed that hand-washing is better because sanitizer doesn’t kill all types of animal-borne infections.

Fair staff use hydrogen peroxide to clean and disinfect railings in the building, but state investigators found traces of animal feces on the floors and bleachers, according to the state report.

The lawsuit similarly accused the State Fair of falling short of government-sanctioned guidelines for animal exhibits.

“Nobody is trying to suggest that people should not be allowed to touch animals at the fair, but the fact that multiple people who visited the Miracle of Birth Center were sickened indicates the fair was not doing enough to keep visitors safe,” said Eric Hageman, an attorney representing VonderHaar.

“The public has the right to expect that the fair is taking all possible measures to prevent the spread of disease to visitors and, at a minimum, following existing guidelines,” Hageman said.

A spokesperson for the fair declined to comment on the lawsuit but said officials are reviewing the Health Department’s latest recommendations.

Boy’s kidneys were failing

VonderHaar said her son was diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a kidney complication of E. coli infections, and showed low blood cell counts during his hospitalization that are normally seen in cancer patients.

At one point, she said, doctors were considering dialysis for his failing kidneys.

VonderHaar said her son couldn’t return to preschool for more than a month after he left the hospital because tests of his stools still showed traces of the E. coli bacteria.

She was thankful that at least her son’s twin brother wasn’t infected, despite also visiting the fair exhibit.

While the twins are rambunctious — “if there’s mud, they are in the puddle,” their mother said — neither will go anywhere near farm animals now and they have no interest in going back to the fair.

“There’s a lot of dinosaur museums and everything,” she said. “Those animals are dead, so we’re good.”

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744