NEW ORLEANS -- State health officials say last month three people in this area contracted the E. coli bacteria. One of them recently died from the illness.
The funeral for the little girl was held Monday. Now the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has some partial answers.
Family and friends and the Academy of the Sacred Heart Community are mourning the loss of a little girl. Maelan Elizabeth Graffagnini was just 21 months old. She was gravely ill from the E. coli bacteria while fighting for her life at Ochsner Hospital for weeks.
Two other adults in the New Orleans area were also sickened by the same strain of E. coli linked to a multi-state outbreak.
But Tuesday night, state health officials are discounting speculation that in this new case, the bacteria was contracted from animals at the Audubon petting zoo. They say their scientific investigation shows otherwise.
Dr. Raoult Ratard, who is the state epidemiologist, wrote in a statement: "Contact with a petting zoo can be ruled out due to the fact that no cases, except one, had contact with the local petting zoo. The likely exposure is a food source but this has yet to be confirmed."
And a statement from the Audubon Zoo reads:
According to Dr. Gary Balsamo, state public health veterinarian and assistant state epidemiologist in the Office of Public Health, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, "Three cases of toxigenic E. coli were reported to DHH in May 2012 in the greater New Orleans area. These cases all have the same 'DNA fingerprints.' They are part of a CDC cluster of cases coming from several southern states. The CDC investigation has not yet identified the common source. Rumors that the strain are coming from petting zoos appear to be unfounded."
Infectious disease expert Dr. Brobson Lutz says DNA testing has revolutionized food borne outbreak investigations.
"I would doubt very seriously that this child acquired this from a petting an animal in zoo if this same DNA fingerprint is showing up in other cities across the United States. There have been cases of these aggressive E. coli outbreaks that have been related to petting zoos where children may have gone in and put their hands in their mouth before the parent could wash their hand, but those are really very rare compare to the food borne outbreaks."
Dr. Lutz said humans and pets have millions of E. coli living in their colons, but the real trouble comes from the mutated strains usually transmitted in meat or beef.
So constant hand washing after using the bathroom and petting animals is a must. He also says make sure vegetables never touch areas where raw meat was.
He believes that anti-biotics in livestock feed are contributing to creating super E. coli strains that have mutated and become extremely toxic to people.