Women who are, or who may be, pregnant should avoid close contact with sheep during lambing periods. Pregnant women who come into close contact with sheep during lambing may risk their own health and that of their unborn child, from infections which can occur in some ewes. These include chlamydiosis (enzootic abortion of ewes - EAE), toxoplasmosis and listeriosis, which are common causes of abortion in ewes. Q fever (caused by the organism Coxiella burnetii) can also be acquired following exposure during lambing, as the organisms may be present in birth fluids of animals (not just sheep) which have no clinical signs of disease.
Although these infections are uncommon, and the number of human pregnancies affected by contact with sheep is extremely small, it is important that pregnant women are aware of the potential risks.
It is also important to note that these risks are not only confined to the spring (when the majority of lambs are born) nor are the risks only associated with sheep: cows and goats that have recently given birth can also carry similar infections.
To avoid the possible risk of infection, pregnant women are advised that they should:
In addition it is advisable to:
Pregnant women should seek medical advice if they experience fever or influenza-like symptoms, or if concerned that they could have acquired infection from a farm environment.
Farmers have a responsibility to minimise risks to pregnant women, including members of their family, the public and professional staff visiting farms. Any action should be determined by their risk assessment required under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 and also the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
In the interests of hygiene, farmers should dispose of all afterbirths promptly and safely in accordance with relevant legislation. The Animal By-Products Regulations (external link) requires animal by-products, including afterbirth material, to be disposed of via an approved route such as rendering, incineration, knackers yards, etc.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) booklet entitled New and Expectant Mothers at Work – A Guide for Employers provides guidance on protecting the health and safety of workers who are new or expectant mothers. This is available as a free PDF on the HSE website: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/priced/infection-mothers.pdf (external link)
A publication has been released by the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) entitled Infections at work: Controlling the risks – A guide for employers and the self-employed on identifying, assessing and controlling the risks of infection in the workplace. This can be accessed on the HSE website: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/infection.pdf (external link) or by ringing the HSE Helpline on 0845 345 0055.
Further advice from HSE is available:
'Infections at Work' - http://www.hse.gov.uk/biosafety/diseases/zoonoses.htm (external link)
'Common Zoonoses in Agriculture' - http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/ais2.pdf (external link)
Last reviewed: 3 January 2014