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.
Notes to editors
1.*Data from review of 55 outbreaks of intestinal disease at petting farms between 1992 and 2009. Gormley et al (2011). Transmission of Cryptosporidium spp. at petting farms, England and Wales. Emerging Infectious Diseases
2.The Health Protection Agency (a forebear of Public Health England), Department of Health and Defra have jointly produced a leaflet for the public on how to enjoy farm visits safely: Avoiding infection on farm visits
3.Updated guidance ‘Preventing or controlling ill health from animal contact at visitor attractions – Industry Code of Practice’
Common infections linked to farm visits
E. coli is a bacteria that is commonly found in the intestines of most people and animals. There are many different types of E. coli and while many live harmlessly in the gut, some such as O157 cause illness. More information on E. coli
Cryptosporidium is a parasite that is found in soil, food, water, or surfaces that have been contaminated with infected human or animal faeces. People may also be infected by consuming contaminated water or food, or by swimming in contaminated water (for example in lakes or rivers). Infection is frequently associated with foreign travel. More information on cryptosporidium
Salmonella bacteria live in the gut of many farm animals and can affect meat, eggs, poultry, and milk. More information on salmonella
4.About Public Health England
Public Health England is a new executive agency of the Department of Health that took up its full responsibilities on 1 April 2013. PHE works with national and local government, industry and the NHS to protect and improve the nation’s health and support healthier choices and will be addressing inequalities by focusing on removing barriers to good health. Follow us on Twitter @PHE_uk.
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