Gonzalo Erdozain: Antibacterial gels wipes not a substitute for washing hands when visiting petting zoos farms

Washing hands is the single most effective way to prevent zoonotic disease transmission at petting zoos yet compliance remains low. The most recent attempt at raising public awareness on handwashing after visiting petting zoos comes from Ireland’s Public Health Agency (HPA), which released recommendations yesterday.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) is reminding parents about the importance of supervising hand washing among their children after visiting an open farm and handling farm animals, over the summer holidays.

Antibacterial gels and wipes are not a substitute for washing hands with soap and water, as gels/wipes may be unable to remove contamination in the way that running water can. However, using such gels after hand washing with soap and water may further reduce the risk of picking up these infections.

Dr Lorraine Doherty, Assistant Director of Public Health (Health Protection), PHA, said: “Farm animals often carry a range of organisms which can be passed to children and adults. These organisms can include serious infections such as E. coli O157 which is extremely infectious and easily passed from animals to children and then within the household. Hand washing with soap and water will reduce the risk of picking up these infections, which can be particularly harmful to young children.”

"By being aware and by doing these simple things we can help to avoid illness and enjoy a fun day out.”

It’s not simple if the tools for handwashing are not available. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t work well on soiled hands. They are ineffective in killing Clostridium spores and norovirus. The latest petting zoo-related outbreak (June 2011) involved four people – two adults and two children – falling ill with E. coli after visiting a petting zoo in Washington.

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