Florida health officials reported last week that over 20 people there who visited agricultural fairs with petting zoos have developed a kidney condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS — is a rare complication arising from an initial infection most commonly associated with a strain of E. coli known as E. coli O157:H7. E. coli is a bacterium found in undercooked beef and contaminated food. It can live in the guts of cattle, sheep, goats and other ruminants and can be picked up by petting, nuzzling or feeding the animals. The recent Florida outbreak has been linked to petting zoos at local fairs.
Many family members who are braving visits to petting zoos this spring are arming themselves with sanitizing wipes and making doubly sure that they as well as their children are practicing good hygiene. Local petting zoos are also implementing changes to make it easier for visitors to stay healthy.
Last year in Virginia, 40 cases of E. coli O157:H7 were reported, but none could be linked to petting zoos, health officials said.
In response to the scare in Florida, The Maymont Foundation has installed a dispenser of hand sanitizer at the feed machines around their Children’s Farm and put up signs reminding visitors to wash their hands after feeding and petting the animals. Traveling petting zoos, like Laughing Place in Chesterfield County, follow similar guidelines, and pass out hand sanitizers at birthday parties and other special events.
Dr. Carl Armstrong, director of the office of epidemiology for the Virginia Department of Health, agrees with Wyatt.
“There are lots of different forms of E. coli out there. We as human beings carry it,” he said. “And there are a number of different kinds of pathogenic E. coli that can cause disease. That’s what we are concerned about. But illness is easily prevented by good hygiene.” The most important thing, Armstrong said, is to wash hands often, especially before eating.