Officials are checking to see if the children were sickened by bacteria that can be found in animal feces. Sources other than petting zoos also are being investigated, officials told the newspaper, including exposure to contaminated food or beverages.
A local station places the number of children in Florida who have recently contracted kidney-harming bacteria at nine. And health officials are concerned that number could climb.
The children have been diagnosed with a rare disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which causes the kidneys to malfunction. At least five of the seven victims are listed in critical condition at area hospitals, with one child on dialysis, the Sentinel said. They're also being treated with intravenous liquids and, in some cases, blood transfusions.
The hospitalized children all touched animals recently at area fairs, including the Central Florida Fair in Orlando and the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City between March 3 and 13. Health officials said they might have been exposed to the bacteria through the animals' feces.
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"If this came from the petting zoo, touching the animals, feeding them … many of the younger kids do feed animals, and in turn they put their own fingers in their mouth," Dixit said. "On the other hand, a person handling this animal could have also not washed hand, and cooked food. — The children could have consumed the food, which the person handled."
Many children with HUS recover without lasting side effects, while others suffer permanent kidney damage that later requires dialysis, the Sentinel said.
One adult has also been diagnosed with HUS, but it's not known whether there is a link to the pediatric cases. Dr. Dixit said two children and an adult are showing symptoms of HUS and are under observation, but have not yet been diagnosed. The adult, a grandparent of a sick child, did not visit the zoo, prompting Dr. Dixit to warn the illness can be spread through household contact.
A Central Fair spokesman said Wednesday that petting zoo exhibits are inspected by health officials and veterinarians.
An official with the Strawberry Festival wouldn't comment.
Last fall, more than a dozen children developed the life-threatening kidney ailment in North Carolina, and a petting zoo exhibit at the state fair in October was determined to be the likely source.