The North Carolina Department of Agriculture has just taken a bold, yet small, step to try and prevent a repeat of last year’s outbreak that sickened nearly 100 people, mostly children, who were stricken with E. coli O157:H7 after visiting a petting zoo at the North Carolina State Fair.
The Department of Agriculture announced new guidelines for human-animal interaction at fairs and petting zoos yesterday. It will require the separation of animals and children at petting zoos, as well as the presence of multiple hand washing stations and warnings to the public of the risk of disease spread by animals. These guidelines all make sense, but they are only guidelines.
Although Washington, Oregon, Ohio, Texas, and other states have seen E. coli outbreaks traced to fairs and petting zoos over the last five years, Pennsylvania is the lone state that has put into law measures to protect visitors at fairs and petting zoos. The law, passed by Pennsylvania legislators in 2002, stipulates that animal exhibitions provide hand washing facilities, and post notices on the need for hand washing as well as warnings about the dangers of more than 75 zoonotic diseases. It is the law and applicable to all. But, do North Carolina’s guidelines and Pennsylvania law go far enough?
A 2003 United States Department of Agriculture study of over 20 County Fairs found E. coli O157:H7 in 13.8 percent of beef cattle, 5.9 percent of dairy cattle, and slightly smaller percentages of sheep, pigs and goats – nearly the same percentages found in animals in feed lots.
Since 1995, at least fifteen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos. Dozens of children have suffered acute kidney failure, and some will require kidney transplants later in life. In 2001 and in 2005 the CDC warned operators of petting zoos and county fairs to clean up.
Nonetheless, lessons from previous outbreaks are not being learned.
Those farm animals may be cute, but they also can carry a deadly pathogen. We need laws, applicable to all, that focus on prevention. Those laws should implement the following:
Use printed materials – signs, hand-outs, and flyers – to educate petting zoo visitors about the risks of zoonotic diseases.
Petting zoo facility design should minimize exposure risks.
Accepted sanitation protocols to prevent environmental exposures should be used.
All animals should be tested for pathogenic bacteria before they arrive at the petting zoo.
Hand washing stations should be accessible to all visitors.
All visitors should be provided with appropriate protective devices, such as shoe scrubs and gloves.
Prohibit food, drink, and hand-held items in petting zoo areas.
Perhaps putting these recommendations into law won’t eliminate the risk to public health. But for a minimal investment, petting zoo organizers can reduce the risk of sending kids to the hospital – or worse.