Start of petting zoo season prompts infection risk warning

Start of petting zoo season prompts infection risk warning

by Sue Jones
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An agency in Ireland has warned about the increased risk of Cryptosporidium because of the start of petting zoo season.

The Health Service Executive’s Department of Public Health Mid-West is advising people to improve handwashing in and around farm settings, and to test and treat well water, to reduce the risk of infection by Cryptosporidium.

The agency managed a Cryptosporidium outbreak linked to a farm setting a few weeks ago but did not say how many people were sick. Another recent outbreak because of animal contact affected four people at a university or college.

The Mid-West in Clare, Limerick and North Tipperary has one of the highest rates of Cryptosporidium in Ireland. There were 121 cases recorded in the region in 2021, almost three times the 46 reported in 2020, and the highest in the past 10 years.

Cryptosporidium is a parasitic disease mainly found in the feces of animals. Infection occurs through contact with farm animals or their environment or when people drink water contaminated with animal feces, or touch contaminated objects and then their mouths before washing hands. Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach pains, and headaches. It may cause outbreaks of gastroenteritis, and can have long-lasting effects on those with weak immune systems.

Alcohol hand sanitizer is not effective against Cryptosporidium, and washing hands with hot water and soap is the best form of hygiene, according to health officials.

Increased risk for children
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has also advised people visiting petting farms and zoos to stay safe by ensuring good hand hygiene after touching animals or their surroundings.

The authority said it should be assumed that all farm animals will be carrying infections, even if they appear clean and healthy. Outbreaks associated with animals tend to happen in the spring linked to lambing events and also during the summer when people are on holiday.

Other advice includes not kissing animals or allowing children to put their faces close to them or using gels or wipes instead of soap and water as they do not remove the germs found on farms and zoo animals.

Louise Catling, from the UKHSA East, said people should be aware that contact with animals carries a risk of infection because of the bugs they naturally carry.

“Unfortunately in the spring and summer months we often see a rise in cases of gastrointestinal infections including cryptosporidiosis, E. coli O157, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Giardia,” she said.

“The best way to protect yourself and others is to make sure to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after contact with animals, especially before eating and drinking. We are very used to washing our hands thoroughly after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic but we must not forget that this simple measure can also keep many other germs at bay.”

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