Handwashing still isn’t enough at petting zoos, no matter what the owner says

In the fall of 2009, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak at Godstone Petting Farm in the U.K resulted in 93 illnesses – primarily little kids.

An initial report by Professor George Griffin found that it could have been avoided if visitors had been kept away from animal feces, and was made worse by the slow reaction of health authorities before the petting farm in Surrey was closed.

Eight of the children infected required dialysis and some have been left with permanent kidney damage. At one point during the outbreak victims were occupying all the children’s acute renal support services in London.

As part of the response, U.K. health types recommended handwashing stations with soap and water only (no wipes or sanitizers).

But while some studies suggest inadequate handwashing facilities may have contributed to disease outbreaks, or washing hands was protective against illness, others suggest bugs like E. coli O157 may be aerosolized and inhaled, thus not prevented with handwashing.

In the 2009 outbreak, a bunch of U.K. researchers concluded that in the Godstone outbreak, “handwashing conferred no demonstrable protective effect.

“Moreover, from the findings of many previous published studies, it must be assumed that all petting or open farms are potentially high-risk environments for the acquisition of VTEC O157 infection.”

So Beth McNair, the mother of a 12-year-old who was hospitalized from complications of E. coli contracted at the Cleveland County Fair, sorta has a point when she says more needs to be done to prevent outbreaks.

“Well, it’s been very difficult. I mean just, one day you’re going along with your daily lives, then all of the sudden you run into this brick wall, and it stops your life.”

Jordan McNair was released from Levine Children’s Hospital last week, after being in the hospital for almost a month.

WSOCTV.com reports that the Zootastic Park in Troutman is getting ready for its annual light show and petting zoo starting Friday.

“E. coli always worries me,” said owner Scottie Brown. “What’s most important is for people to know that you got to wash your hands. It’s not about the animals, it’s about people too.”

Brown said his zoo has handwashing stations all around the facility.

Brown sorta misses the point: handwashing is never enough.

A table of petting zoo outbreaks is available at http://bites.ksu.edu/petting-zoos-outbreaks