Last month, petting zoo animals caused an outbreak of 26 E. coli infections at three central Florida fairs. In North Carolina, more than 100 people, mostly children, were infected by E. coli at the state fair last year.
Two E. coli outbreaks in Pennsylvania and Washington in 2000 led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish recommendations for preventing the disease when people come in contact with animals.
E. coli O157:H7 can cause severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and in about 2 percent to 7 percent of cases, life-threatening kidney complications.
In addition to animals at petting zoos, “pocket pets” such as hamsters, mice, reptiles, and amphibians are notorious for carrying a dangerous multidrug-resistant form of salmonella. As many as 70,000 people contract salmonellosis from reptiles in the United States each year.
To prevent possible infection, the CDC suggests that you scrub your hands vigorously with soap and water (preferably hot water) for at least 20 seconds after contact with animals.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective against many organisms. However, hand sanitizers are not effective against bacterial spores, Cryptosporidium and some viruses. Hand sanitizers are also less effective when hands are visibly dirty.
In addition, the CDC recommends:
• Supervise children closely at petting zoos and fairs, making sure to discourage hand-to-mouth contact.
• Do not take food or beverages, toys, pacifiers, baby bottles or sippy cups into the animal contact areas.
• Fairs and zoos should limit access to animal areas, with hand-washing stations at the gates and in food concession areas.