On Wednesday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that at least five children were in critical condition in Orlando-area hospitals with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, a potentially life-threatening cause of kidney failure. All visited a petting zoo the week before they became ill.
There’s nothing more American than a petting zoo. Countless numbers of children visit petting zoos to have a hands-on experience with farm animals every year. Unfortunately, some children become ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections — the leading cause of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome in North America. In fact, it is estimated that five to ten percent of persons who become ill with E. coli infections develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome.
Most people identify E. coli with undercooked ground beef, but it’s not that simple. E. coli infections are caused by the ingestion of fecal material. So a burger becomes contaminated during the slaughtering process, and children can become infected while playing with livestock that are shedding the bacteria. Just as proper sanitation in slaughterhouses is essential in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks, good hygiene and sanitation in areas where livestock are held are of utmost importance in preventing E. coli outbreaks among petting zoo visitors.
Lightning does strike the same spot twice, or even more often.
Since 1995, at least thirteen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos in the US. Thousands have been sickened. Many escape with a bad case of diarrhea and cramps. But some, mostly kids, suffer permanent damage to their kidneys after battling Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Sadly, the health department, media, and petting zoo industry response has been weak at best. That must change.
Last year, nearly 100 people, again mostly children, were stricken with E. coli after visiting a petting zoo at the North Carolina State Fair. Over a dozen children suffered from Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, requiring kidney dialysis. Some will likely need transplants in the future. In 2002, at least 82 people became sick after attending the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon. Most were young children, and 22 of them were hospitalized — twelve with kidney failure.
In 2001, the CDC warned operators of petting zoos and county fairs to clean up. The warnings should no longer be ignored.
A recent 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.
So what do we do? Close down petting zoos? No. But, fair organizers and petting zoo owners can take some rather simple and inexpensive precautions.
1) Sanitize walkways and railings, and provide ample hand-washing areas for both employees and visitors.
2) Stop selling or allowing food in close proximity to areas where animals are on display.
3) Increase ventilation of buildings to reduce the risk of airborne contamination. Keep livestock areas damp with an approved disinfectant.
4) Screen all display animals for E. coli O157:H7 – or require that exhibitors show proof their animals are pathogen-free.
5) Educate visitors. Post signs that explain to parents the importance of hand-washing before and after visiting animals. Post warnings at fair entrances, emphasizing the risks to small children.
Perhaps these precautions won’t eliminate the risk to public health. But, for a minimal investment, organizers can increase awareness and reduce the risk of sending kids to the hospital with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome — or worse.