petting zoo ecoli safetyQ: Our family is going to visit the zoo this summer. Do we need to be concerned about touching the animals?
A: Animals at the zoo or county fairs can carry infectious diseases that cause illness or even death. If hands are not washed after handling animals, bacteria can transfer to food and into the body. Children tend to put their hands in their mouths more than adults, so it is especially important to wash their hands. There have been several outbreaks of illness after handling animals and then consuming food. In 2000, two incidences occurred in Pennsylvania and Washington causing illness due to E.coli infections. Fifty-six children became ill and 19 were hospitalized, all due to direct farm animal contact. Another incident occurred in 2002 at an Oregon county fair. After visiting the sheep and goat exhibits, 82 people became ill. And just this year, more than 20 people became ill after handling animals in Florida petting zoos.

Here are some tips to reduce the chance of illness:
— The best defense is washing hands with soap and hot water as soon as possible.
— Do not eat or drink until hands are clean.
— Do not consume food or beverages in the animal areas.
— Children who climb or touch gates or stall dividers also should wash their hands.
— Do not kiss the animals.
— Do not feed the animals.
— Concerns about health should not keep people from enjoying being around animals. Simply taking precautions such as thorough hand washing can make the difference between an enjoyable memory and an unfortunate incident.