The Orlando Sentinel reports that the direct cause of the recent HUS outbreaks in Central Florida is still uncertain, but medical investigators know that one of the common factors have been visits to petting zoos by the children infected.
Florida requires animals exhibited, whether at zoos or petting zoos, to have an Official Certificate of Veterinary Inspection. The examination is performed by a non-zoo veterinarian, and then verified by state inspectors at each exposition. However, the emphasis is on illnesses that affect the animals. No state or federal agencies regulate the sanitary conditions that people encounter at petting zoos.
The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is responsible for inspecting farm animals before they are exhibited at fairs as well as petting zoos, but much like the requirements for the Official Certificate of Veterinary Inspection, the examination is for visibly sick animals. Bacteria such as E. coli are carried by animals that are not affected by the bacteria. The USDA also inspects animals and licenses them for exhibitions, but their inspections are geared towards animal welfare – veterinary care, shelter and feeding, rather than actual illnesses.
“Tests are not geared toward outbreaks like this,” said Dr. Thomas Holt, state veterinarian and director of the Division of Animal Industry. “If it’s E. coli, it’s unlikely [inspectors] would pick it up or a private veterinarian would pick it up,” Holt said. “The animal would have looked perfectly healthy.”
Dr. Darryl Heard, the zoo’s veterinarian and an associate professor and service chief of the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says it is not possible to screen for all potential disease-producing organisms. Disease-producing organisms are present in all human environments, and may be found in domestic animals, as well as those displayed in zoos, Heard said.
The best preventative care is left in the visitor’s hands.
At the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford, signs encourage visitors to wash their hands after touching animals. Soap and water, as well as antibacterial liquid, are provided. At Uncle Donald’s Farm in Lady Lake, staff members tell people at the beginning and end of animal encounters to make sure they wash their hands. They do not allow food or drink in the areas of animal-human interaction. A little humor is often used to get the kids’ attention, too, Donna Morris of Uncle Donald’s Farm said. They use a little scarecrow in a straw hat holds a sign that reads, “Don’t be a dope, wash with soap. Some of these critters have germs.”