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Lawsuit planned from one of five confirmed cases of food poisoning at fair

WEST FARGO, N.D.—State health officials could not pinpoint the source of an E. coli outbreak linked to the Red River Valley Fair in July, but they did find that more than 60 people got sick, including a toddler whose mother is now planning a lawsuit.

The state Department of Health recently wrapped up its investigation of an E. coli outbreak at the fair. Sixty-four cases of infection were found, but only five were confirmed as E. coli; the rest are considered probable cases. A probable case is defined as anyone who attended the fair July 7-12 and developed diarrhea within 10 days.

Of the five confirmed cases, all were under the age of 18.

"We didn't find a reason why or how people got sick," said State Epidemiologist Michelle Feist.

The Health Department found that 21 of the people who were sickened attended the fair July 11, but few other commonalities were found.

"Additional cases could have occurred as a result of attending the fair; however, no additional dates, food vendors, food items or specific animal exposures were identified," according to the Health Department's final report.

Typical symptoms of E. coli are cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but it can also lead to kidney damage or kidney failure, which is what reportedly happened to a 15-month old Cass County boy.

Minneapolis-based attorney Eric Hageman has served a complaint against the Red River Valley Fair on behalf of the boy's mother, Erin Gillam.

The complaint said Gillam and her son attended the fair July 10 and visited the Ag Education Center, where the boy had contact with several types of animals including a calf and piglets.

The boy got sick about four days later and was taken to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with E. coli infection and hemolytic uremic syndrome, a common E. coli complication that can cause kidney failure, the complaint said.

On July 19, the boy was flown to Sanford Children's Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he underwent dialysis and remained hospitalized until Aug. 13.

The complaint is asking the fair to pay upward of $25,000 to cover the boy's medical expenses and expenses such as his mother's lost wages while he was hospitalized.

Hageman said the complaint was served on the fair's attorney, Dan Vogel of Fargo, but not yet filed in Cass County District Court.

Vogel said he has received the complaint and will review it.

While most people typically get sick within three or four days of an E. coli infection, it can sometimes take as long as 10 days. Of the cases the Health Department found, those infected ranged from 9 months old to 68 years old. Most were sick between July 7 and July 22, the Health Department said.

Red River Valley Fair General Manager Bryan Schulz said the fair has not hosted a petting zoo in years, but there are animal exhibits that return each year in the Ag Education Center. All of the animals there come from North Dakota State University. Other animals on display come from private owners who are vetted.

He said the fair has always taken precautionary measures to protect attendees, including using a protocol of spraying down its barns after any horse or cattle shows. The fair does not allow food vendors near the animal areas, he said.

Nine staff members and three fair board members have been trained in consumer protection measures, which include education on E. coli protection measurements, Schulz said. Warning signs are also around the grounds.

Schulz said he does not expect this event to force animal exhibits off the fairgrounds in the future.

"We take a lot of precautions," he said. "We don't know what could happen. We're working with everyone that comes into the shows and making sure they are following protocol."

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and and at CBS Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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