Science, public health officials said, sleuthed out the source of the E. coli infection that sickened five children this spring at Pam Walker’s Mascot day care center.But for Walker, there’s been no closure — and she may never get the answers to exactly how a microorganism turned her dream of a bucolic child care center in a farm setting to a weeks-long nightmare.
Meanwhile, the health department was already investigating an E. coli outbreak among 10 children who’d consumed raw milk from a nearby dairy, French Broad Farms. Because it would be so unusual for two different E. coli O157 outbreaks to occur in the same area simultaneously, the health department, in the course of extensive interviews, looked for a link between Kids Place and the dairy. Did any children at the day care drink raw milk? Socialize or swim with anyone in the other group of infected children? Did any person or animal go back and forth between the dairy and the day care? The answers, they found, were no.
With the positive culture from goat feces, the health department’s investigators determined that bacteria from the goats had somehow gotten into the baby house — and probably would have been present there before cleaning. When the specimens were sent back to the Tennessee Department of Health for DNA comparison with stool samples from the sick children, the DNA “fingerprint” from the goat samples and the Kids Place children were an exact match — but different from the DNA “fingerprint” of the cow feces from the dairy and the children who’d consumed raw milk, which matched each other. That meant, though unusual, that Knox County had two separate E. coli outbreaks in young children happening at the same time.