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Staying Sanitary At The Zoo

Health officials in Florida may be close to pinpointing the cause of a medical mystery. As many as nine children have been diagnosed with a rare kidney disorder, and five are in critical condition. Official fear the number could climb.

The hospitalized kids had one thing in common: They touched animals recently at petting zoos at area fairs, including the Central Florida Fair in Orlando and the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, between March 3 and 13.

The kidney infection known as Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which causes kidneys to malfunction, is usually contracted by touching under-cooked meat or contaminated food. But in this case, health officials believe the children were exposed to it via animal droppings.

Shawn Starcher's 4-year-old daughter is on dialysis.

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He urges that "parents out there that think they might be feeling ill, or the kids, you know, I strongly suggest going to get checked out, just to be on the safe side."

Dr. Nina Marano of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta explains to The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen that, "When children come to a petting zoo, they have a tendency to want to touch everything, and after they touch the grates where the animals lick and rub against the fence railings, the next thing children what to do is put their hands in their mouths.

"It's that hand-to-mouth transmission of the bacteria from the animals that causes some children to become ill."

She says Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome is "a very serious infection in young children, especially children under the age of 5. About 3 to 7 percent of these infections can lead to this condition."

So what can parents do to keep kids from contracting illnesses at petting zoos?

Marano suggests carrying young children "to reduce the chances that the child may possibly come into contact with these bacteria."

She says it's also a good idea not to let kids use pacifiers or sippy cups while they're in petting zoos.

But, stress Marano, "The most important thing is to make sure that your child washes their hands with soap and water on the way out of the animal contact area.

"Zoos and animal petting facilities should offer hand-washing facilities at the exit to the animal contract areas. Absent that, it's important to consider using alcohol and the hand-based gels."

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