News that a large and growing outbreak of highly toxic E. coli O157:H7 linked to the Gladstone Farm and Playbarn in Surrey, England has led E. coli expert Bill Marler to urge animal exhibitors on both sides of the Atlantic to implement existing safety guidelines.
The Gladstone outbreak has sickened at least 36 people and sent 12 children to hospital. Four of those children are seriously ill, most likely with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a complication of E. coli infection that can cause renal failure and other serious problems.
Marler addressed the Royal Institute of Public Health in both 2008 and 2009 on E. coli outbreaks and dangers. “Unfortunately, we keep seeing outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 at petting zoos and animal exhibits,” he said from his office in Seattle. “In the U.S there have more than two dozen outbreaks of E. coli traced to such events in the last 20 years. As with this outbreak, the victims are primarily children.”
The ongoing problem led the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC ) to publish recommendations for reducing the risk of transmitting E. coli and other human pathogens at animal exhibits. In the wake of devastating E. coli outbreaks, several states including Pennsylvania and North Carolina have enacted laws requiring similar precautions. Yet in representing dozens of children sickened in these outbreaks over the years, Marler Clark has seen animal exhibitors continue to disregard these basic precautions:
1. Source control: Animals need to be screened for pathogens, and removed if ‘shedding’ those pathogens.
2. Effective manure management: Sanitary removal of animal manure followed by sanitation of bins and traffic areas.
3. Dust control: Fecal dust can spread infectious agents onto surfaces, which results in human illness through hand to mouth transfer of pathogens.
4. Clean up and sanitation: Sanitize all contact surfaces.
5. Environmental sanitation: Prevent cross contamination of areas adjacent to animal holding areas, particularly food courts and drinking fountains.
6. Hand washing and sanitation facilities: Require visitors to wash and sanitize upon entry and exit to animal holding areas and petting zoos.
7. Clear protocol for petting zoo and animal contact areas: Hand-to-mouth activities such as eating, drinking, smoking, carrying toys and pacifiers should be strictly prohibited in the interaction area. Gloves should be available for additional protection.
8. Information should be provided: Wherever there is public access to farm animals, information about the risk associated with the transmission of pathogens should be provided to visitors.
9. Heightened precautions should be applied to high-risk groups: Children under age 5, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women fall in the category of high-risk for serious infection, and hence should strictly follow all the precautions enforced in the animal contact area.