Illness linked to petting farms

Published on Monday, 24 June 2013 11:38
Written by Vicki Mitchem

Reminder to practise good hand hygiene when visiting farm attractions following a number of outbreaks of diarrhoeal illness this year.

Between January and May 2013 there have been 12 outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis associated with petting farms across England affecting around 130 people. Over the past 20 years, an average of around 80 cases* of cryptosporidium infection linked to visits to petting farms have been reported to PHE each year. This is out of a total of around 2 million visits to the 1,000 plus farm attractions in the UK, with peak visitor times during school and public holidays.

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that can be found in soil, water, food or on any surface that has been contaminated with human or animal faeces. The symptoms of cryptosporidiosis are typically watery diarrhoea and stomach pains. There is no specific treatment for the illness which is usually self-limiting, although it is important that anyone with the illness keeps hydrated.

Cryptosporidium is only one of a number of bugs that can be picked up during a visit to a petting farm. Other common infections are caused by E. coli and Salmonella.

All of these bacteria live in the gut of the animals so people can get infected within the farm setting mainly in two ways – either by touching animals in the petting and feeding areas or by coming into contact with animal droppings on contaminated surfaces around the farm. These harmful bacteria can get accidentally passed to your mouth by putting hands on faces or fingers in mouths before washing them thoroughly. It only takes a small number of the bacteria to cause infection.

Cases of E. coli linked to farm attractions are at their highest levels between June and October. An infection with E. coli can lead to mild gastrointestinal illness or in serious cases it can cause bloody diarrhoea which can lead to severe illness.

Dr Bob Adak, head of gastrointestinal diseases at PHE, said:

Visiting a farm is a very enjoyable experience for both children and adults alike but it's important to remember that contact with farm animals carries a risk of infection because of the microorganisms - or germs - they naturally carry.

These outbreaks of illness serve as a reminder for anyone visiting a petting farm of the need to wash their hands thoroughly using soap and water after they have handled animals or been in their surroundings - particularly before eating. Although we can avoid obvious dirt there will be millions of invisible bacteria spread all around the farm which can get onto our hands.

Ahead of the seasonal rise in cases of E. coli linked to petting farms we want to remind people not to rely on hand gels and wipes for protection because these are not suitable against the sort of germs found on farms. Children should also be closely supervised to ensure they wash their hands properly, as they are more at risk of serious illness.

By being aware and by doing these simple things we can help to avoid illness and enjoy a fun day out.

Owners and managers of farm attractions are also strongly recommended to make use of the Industry Code of Practice on how to protect visitors and staff from illness, to ensure they are doing enough to comply with the law. Teachers and others who organise visits for children at farm attractions should be encouraged to read the guidance aimed at them and farms should ensure that they have adequate signage reminding visitors about the important of hand washing after touching the animals or their surfaces.

*Data from review of 55 outbreaks of intestinal disease at petting farms between 1992 and 2009.

Source: Public Health England

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