20 April 2011
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) wants to remind anyone who is visiting an open farm over the Easter weekend not to rely on sanitising hand gels or wipes to protect themselves or their children against germs that may be present in animal dirt around the farm.
Although the risk of becoming unwell is very low in light of the millions of farm visits every year there are, on average, around three outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease which are linked to visits to petting farms. The route of infection in these outbreaks is generally through contact with germs from animal droppings. These germs can be ingested when people, especially children, put their fingers in their mouths.
To reduce the risk of illness, both adults and children should thoroughly wash their hands using soap and water after they have handled animals or touched surfaces at the farm and always before eating or drinking. Hand gels can't remove contamination in the manner that soap and water can.
Research published by the HPA of a review of 55 outbreaks of intestinal disease linked to petting farms between 1992 and 2009 showed that one of the risk factors associated with illness was the reliance on hand gels instead of handwashing. Over the 17 year period of the study, 1,328 people were reported to have fallen ill following a farm visit, of whom 113 were hospitalised. Illness ranged from mild through to severe diarrhoea and occasionally more serious conditions.
Hand gels have their use in areas which are generally clean, for example offices or hospitals, but are not effective in killing bugs such as E. coli or cryptosporidium which can be found in animal droppings and on contaminated surfaces around farms.
Dr Bob Adak, an HPA expert in gastrointestinal disease, 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 bacteria – or germs – they naturally carry.
"It is very important to avoid direct contact with animal droppings and also to be aware of the importance of good hand hygiene. As soon as you have finished touching the animals it is very important to wash your hands using soap and hot water and then dry them thoroughly. Children should be supervised when doing this as they are more at risk of serious disease.
"Visitors should be aware that using sanitising gels is not a substitute for washing hands as gels may fail to remove contamination in the way that soap and running water can. However using sanitising gels following handwashing with soap and water may provide extra benefit.
"By being aware and by doing these simple things we can help to avoid illness and enjoy a fun day out."
Notes for editors:
1. Over half of the 55 outbreaks in the study, 30 (55 per cent) were caused by E. coli O157 (VTEC O157) and a further 23 (42 per cent) were caused by cryptosporidium. The remaining two (three per cent) outbreaks were caused by a type of salmonella.
Other risk factors noted in the research are which have been linked to outbreaks include bottle feeding lambs and thumb sucking by children. The full research paper can be found in Emerging Infectious Diseases 2010 Gormley et al. 'Transmission of Cryptosporidium spp. at petting farms, England and Wales' http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/
2. Cryptosporidium is a protozoan parasite, which can be transmitted through contact with soil, food, water or surfaces that have been contaminated with infected human or animal faeces. The most common symptom is watery diarrhoea, which can range from mild to severe. Cryptosporidiosis is most common in children aged between one and five years, but it can affect anyone. People with weak immune systems are likely to be most seriously affected.
3. Escherichia coli (E. coli) are common bacteria which live in the intestines of warm blooded animals. There are certain forms, or strains, of E.coli which are normally found in the intestine of healthy people and animals without causing any ill effects. A number of E. coli strains cause illness but E. coli O157 is associated with more serious illness. For the majority of people the infection is usually self limited and clears within seven days, but children under five are vulnerable to more severe illness. Symptoms can range from mild through to severe diarrhoea, to a serious condition called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) that affects the blood, kidneys and in severe cases, the central nervous system.
4. Following the publication in 2010 of the Independent Investigation into the outbreak of E.coli O157 at Godstone Farm in Surrey in 2009, the Health and Safety Executive have recently published new guidance for owners and managers of visitor attractions on preventing or controlling ill health from animal contact at visitor attractions. The guidance includes a supplement for teachers and others who organise visits for children. The full guidance can be downloaded from the HSE's website: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/ais23.pdf
5. The HPA, Department of Health and Defra have jointly produced a leaflet for the public 'Avoiding infection on farm visits' with information on how to enjoy farm visits safely. The full leaflet can be downloaded from the HPA's website: http://www.hpa.org.uk/Publications/InfectiousDiseases/Factsheets/0410farmvisits/
A summary of the guidance found in the leaflet is as follows:
6. The Health Protection Agency is an independent UK organisation that was set up by the government in 2003 to protect the public from threats to their health from infectious diseases and environmental hazards. It does this by providing advice and information to the general public, to health professionals such as doctors and nurses, and to national and local government. To find out more, visit our website: www.hpa.org.uk
7. For more information please contact the national HPA press office at Colindale on 020 8327 7901 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Out of hours the duty press officer can be contacted on 020 8200 4400.
Last reviewed: 19 April 2011