A traveling petting zoo has been identified by Minnesota health officials as the source of an E. coli outbreak that so far has infected 13 people and required seven of them to be admitted to hospitals.

The Zerebko Zoo Tran traveling exhibit has suspended appearances at county fairs over the past two weekends as state health officials investigate the outbreak, which was identified because sickened Minnesotans all had strains of bacteria with the same genetic fingerprint. At least 10 of the cases involved people, ranging in age from 2 to 68, who had contact with Zerebko's animals at the July 4th Festival in Nashwauk and the Polk, Rice and Olmsted county fairs in July. Two more cases involved people who had been in contact with others who had been at the Rice County fair.

"It's actually a really complicated situation that we have," said Dr. Carrie Klumb, an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health. "This is a bacteria that cattle, goats and sheep can all naturally have and it doesn't make those animals sick, but it makes us sick."

Among the seven people admitted to hospitals, two suffered a severe complication of E. coli infections known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which affects kidney function. One of those patients remains hospitalized. Symptoms of illness caused by this E. coli bacteria include severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, often with bloody stools. Symptoms often emerge within five days of exposure.

Klumb said the owners and veterinarians with Zerebko voluntarily removed their animals from current exhibits and are working with state health officials before returning to future events. The petting zoo is not appearing at the Minnesota State Fair. "We really want the public to be aware that even healthy, well-tended animals can make them sick," she said, urging people to wash their hands after being near animals.

The animals also could have spread the bacteria to railings, hay or other surfaces.

"We've all seen kids licking railings before," Klumb said, "so it can happen."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744