Kids and Petting Zoos
Simple Steps Can Prevent Infections at Petting Zoos
By Michele Bloomquist
Reviewed By Michael Smith
Five cases of life-threatening kidney failure highlight the needs for parents to take special precautions when their child visits a petting zoo.
According to published repots, five children in Florida have developed a condition that likely stems from contact with animals infected with a strain of E. coli bacteria called 0157:H7. Usually this infection comes from eating undercooked beef or contaminated food. These children may have been exposed to E. coli through animal feces, according to health officials.
The five children have developed a complication of E. coli infection called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. Four of the children had visited a local fair in Orlando, Fla. The fifth child developed the infection after visiting a petting zoo in Plant City, Fla.E. Coli Symptoms
Infection with this strain of E. coli can cause severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea, which may become bloody by the second or third day, according to the medical experts at MedicineNet.com, a WebMD company. Nausea and vomiting are present in approximately half of the patients. Most patients recover in seven to 10 days, but some (6%) go on to have HUS. This is most likely to happen in children and the elderly. Some patients develop brain problems, such as seizures. Many patients require dialysis and blood transfusions. About 3% to 5% of people with HUS die.
This is not the first time that an outbreak of E. coli has occurred from visiting a petting zoo. In 2001, 16 children who had visited a petting zoo at Merrymead Farm in Worcester, Pa., developed E. coli and another 45 people were suspected to have become ill from the bacteria.
Such outbreaks are rare, says Elichia A. Venso, PhD, director and associate professor of environmental health science at Salisbury State University in Maryland. But incidents like these put the spotlight on petting zoo safety.
But parents don't need to avoid such zoos altogether, says Venso. They just need to know how to keep E. coli and other animal-borne organisms from infecting their kids
E. coli is one of the most common bacteria around. E. coli bacteria cannot penetrate the skin, so simply touching an animal or area contaminated with it doesn't pose a threat. However, touching the eyes, nose, mouth, or other mucus membranes after touching a contaminated surface is a major route of infection. So is ingesting E. coli-contaminated food. For young children -- whose immune systems can be hit hard by this bacteria, and who tend to put everything in their mouths -- the potential for illness is clear.
Because animals carrying E. coli 0157:H7 -- typically cattle -- generally don't show any signs of illness, it is impossible for parents to tell if an animal is infected just by looking at it, says Bhushan Jayarao, MVSc, PhD, MPH, an extension veterinarian with the department of veterinary science at Pennsylvania State University.
Nor is wide-scale testing for the bacteria always effective or feasible. "Most of these petting zoos are small, family-run operations. Testing is expensive and not always available," says Jayarao.
Besides, an animal that tests clean one week may become infected the next, giving a false sense of security.
"No petting zoo or farm can guarantee the bacteria isn't there. Parents should assume that there is a risk and follow safety precautions," he says.
While the E. coli outbreak has justifiably concerned parents, it needn't scare them away, Jayarao says. Protecting your kids from E. coli 0157:H7, or any other organism found in a farm environment -- such as Salmonella, Cryptosporidia, and Listeria -- is largely a matter of following some simple safety rules, he says:
Playing With Animals Still OK
None of this is to say that children should be kept from animals. There are a lot of benefits to be gained by kids interacting with animals, says Linda J. Lyons, MSW, LICSW, a therapist who uses animals when she works with troubled children -- such as decreased anxiety, increased confidence, and the chance to connect with another living being in a nonthreatening way.
And thanks to our increasingly urban society, "a petting zoo may be the only place where kids are exposed to animals besides cats and dogs," she says.
"It would be a shame to see these small petting zoos disappear because of this outbreak," he says. Instead, he hopes that health departments will work with local petting zoos to help them develop safer practices.
He also hopes that parents become informed about the risks and take some precautions to safeguard their kids.
After all, he says, "A petting zoo is a great thing."
Michele Bloomquist is a freelance writer based in Brush Prairie, Wash. She writes frequently about consumer health.
Originally Published April 23, 2001.
Medically Updated March 24, 2005.
SOURCES: Elichia A. Venso, PhD, director and associate professor of environmental health science, Salisbury State University, Maryland. Bhushan Jayarao, MVSc, PhD, MPH, extension veterinarian, department of veterinary science, Pennsylvania State University. Linda J. Lyons, MSW, LICSW, therapist. MedicineNet.com, a WebMD company.
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