McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. — At least six children who recently visited Cowans Gap State Park in Fulton County, Pa., contracted E. coli, and some have developed a potentially fatal, related condition, Pennsylvania Department of Health officials said Tuesday.
The discovery has prompted state officials to shut down all water activities at Cowans Gap until further notice.
"We suspect more people in the community, especially healthy adults, are becoming ill and fighting it off or don't seek medical care," said Dr. Andre Weltman, a public health physician for the state.
Cowans Gap has not officially been linked to the illnesses.
"Right now, that's just a piece of our investigation. We haven't determined a direct link," said Christine Cronkright, health department spokeswoman.
"This is a rapidly moving investigation," Weltman said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the state shut down the park, saying that all water activities at Cowans Gap are prohibited until further notice.
"We are doing this to (ensure) that we have safe water in the lake for recreational activities," the statement posted on Cowans Gap's website says.
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokesman Terry Brady said in an email Tuesday night that the closing of the lake at Cowans Gap is a precautionary measure "to protect the public's health and safety until the investigation can be completed."
He said the decision was made after interviews showed that swimming in the lake before becoming ill was a common factor between all individuals. Interviews suggest no relationship between the E. coli cases and the drinkable water at the park, Brady said.
Brady said those who are ill were exposed to the lake between July 21 and 31. The stricken individuals range in age from 2 to 49, he said in the email.
Cronkright said five confirmed cases involve southcentral Pennsylvania children, and one involves a Maryland child.
Brady said his agency is working with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to find the cause, test the lake and prevent the bacteria from spreading.
He said water from the 42-acre lake, but not the soil from its shores, is tested two days a week for E. coli every summer, as are other state sites. A third day of testing has been added at Cowans Gap in response to illness-source speculation by Internet users.
Meanwhile, Weltman said water testing for the strain of E. coli (Shiga toxin-producing O157) would be like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Water samples instead reveal E. coli from the coliform group, which does provide some helpful information to investigators.
E. coli O157, which is often associated with food contamination, can be found through testing of stool samples, Weltman said. It's important to test a stool sample if someone reports bloody diarrhea in case the patient has Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, or HUS, he said.
"Antibiotics can make things worse in this particular infection. ... (But) it's summertime, and there are many reasons for people to have diarrhea," Weltman said.
Bloody diarrhea is a common symptom of E. coli O157. Patients often experience cramping and pain.
Children who contract E. coli O157 are susceptible to HUS, which affects the blood and kidneys. HUS can lead to the need for intensive care and/or dialysis.
"It's a much-feared complication," Weltman said. "I regret to say it can be fatal."
E. coli can be spread through just a small amount of bacteria from person to person through fecal-to-oral contact, so hand washing is encouraged, especially for adults who are changing diapers.
Brady said the results of water testing for the lake and drinking water are usually known within three days. One Cowans Gap sample from July 17 indicated E. coli levels outside the acceptable limits, so a beach was closed one day until a subsequent test found only a scant trace of the bacteria.
The state closes lakes and swimming pools on occasion throughout the summer for high E. coli counts, often from thunderstorms affecting geese populations, according to Brady.
Sources of E. coli at lakes include feces from geese, livestock and humans, he said.
Cowans Gap State Park is north of U.S. 30 in Fulton County. Brady said the 1,085-acre park receives 465,000 visits a year. The park will remain open for camping and other activities.
Brady said in the email that the state Department of Health recommends that anyone who has visited the park and experienced diarrheal symptoms should contact a doctor, their county health department or the Department of Health at 1-877-PA-HEALTH.