A young girl has died and her older brother is in a critical condition after contracting a bacterial infection following a visit to a petting zoo.
Tyffani Maresh said her children Kallan and Kade fell ill on Sunday due to a "bad shiga toxin producing bacteria", or STEC, which resulted in "non-stop bloody diarrhoea and vomiting".
While the cause of the infection has not yet been confirmed, there are fears the youngsters contracted it after coming into contact with animals at A Maze'n Farmyard near Eden Valley, Minnesota.
The farmyard's animals have been removed from display as Minnesota Department of Health investigates how Kallan, 3, and Kade, 5, may have contracted the STEC, which resulted in Hemolyic Uremic Syndrome or HUS.
"The toxin from the bacteria not only damaged Kallan's kidneys but also her neurological system," Mrs Maresh wrote in a post to Caring Bridge.
"Her brain and heart were being damaged. Our sweet sweet little girl lost the battle and went to heaven last night."
The distraught mother-of-two added that they were able to give their daughter a bath "and put her favourite jammies on her".
"We got to hold her free of tubes and snuggle and kiss her," Ms Maresh wrote. "She is the most amazing little girl in the world. Our hearts are aching with the deepest sadness."
Kallan and Kade Maresh. Image/Caring Bridge
Joni Scheftle supervisor of the Zoonotic Diseases unit at the Minnesota Department of Health told the Minnesota Star Tribune that deaths from HUS, are very rare. Children and the elderly are most at risk.
"In that syndrome, their blood cells are destroyed, and also the kidneys stop functioning," she said. "And so it's very serious…there are long hospitalisations and sometimes death."
Due to an "abundance of caution", animals from the A Maze'n Farmyard near Eden Valley, Minnesota, have since been removed from display.
"Normal, healthy well-cared for animals can carry germs that can make people sick, and you can't tell by looking at animals, which one may be shedding a germ and which one isn't," Scheftel said.
Scheftel said the petting zoo is just one possible source being investigated for the children's illness. She also advised that there are a number of precautions families visiting petting zoos should take after coming into contact with animals.
"It's really important to wash your hands immediately after visiting the animals," Scheftel said. "The second thing is avoiding hand to mouth contact, so that means not eating or drinking around the animals, that means removing pacifiers or bottles, while you're visiting the animals."
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , while most E. coli are harmless, some can cause serious illness. "The types of E. coli that can cause illness can be transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or people," the CDC notes.
A fact sheet released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals , states that "petting zoos are hotbeds of serious pathogens, including E. coli and salmonella bacteria", and are responsible for multiple incidences of serious illness in children.
"Experts warn that infections can spread through direct or even indirect animal contact," PETA notes, "The area surrounding an animal's cage can be teeming with bacteria, and children can even bring bacteria home on their clothing. Hand washing does nothing to prevent the spread of E. coli by inhalation."
In March 2016, in a case with similar circumstances to the Maresh siblings, The Connecticut Department of Public Health confirmed 34 cases of E. coli contracted from Oak Leaf Diary goat farm. A total of 28 children, aged from ten months to 14 years, were hospitalised while three were diagnosed with HUS. Most of those who fell ill had "petted goats", PETA reports.
Closer to home, the largest outbreak of STEC infection in Australia occurred in 2013 in Brisbane at the Royal Queensland Show. Thirty-one of the 57 cases were children - and there were no reports of HUS.
In the most recent update to her page on Wednesday, Mrs Maresh said Kade was still fighting, battling pain and nausea.
"Labs still indicate his red blood cells are being destroyed by the nasty toxins," she wrote, adding that he had received another blood transfusion and remained on dialysis. "We pray some sign of stability in his blood work in the morning and to have better control of pain and nausea tomorrow."
As they pray for their son's recovery, Mrs Maresh and her husband, Joseph, are grieving the loss of their daughter.
"Our bodies and souls ache watching our little buddy in pain and missing our baby girl. I would do anything to hold her and tell her how much I love her. We miss her so incredibly and painfully bad! Hold your babies tight tonight."
A GoFundMe account, set up on behalf of the family to help with medical expenses has raised over $65,000, surpassing their original target of $20,000. You can make a donation here