A Maine child is dead and another suffers from hemolytic uremic syndrome brought on by E. coli O157:H7 likely picked up again from animal contact at a petting zoo. Already the blame game is starting on the victims – “they did not wash their hands” – “everyone knows the risk.” I am tired of it.
In 2004, 187 people who attended the North Carolina State Fair became ill with E. coli infections; 15 with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication of E. coli infection that can lead to kidney failure, central nervous system impairment, and death. In response to the E. coli outbreak, Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy issued an analysis report regarding government regulation of petting zoos. The authors stated:
In response to the largest outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in North Carolina history, we recommend that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issue guidelines and pursue legislation that will control public contact with animals, inform the public of risks related to animal contact, provide transition areas, regulate animal care, and license petting zoos.
In 2005, North Carolina adopted new legislation on petting zoo sanitation. The bill, called “Aieden’s Law,” was named after a boy who suffered a severe, life-threatening case of HUS. It stipulated that petting zoos must obtain a permit following a physical inspection in order to operate in the state.
In response to the 2011 N.C. State Fair E. coli outbreak, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created a multiagency task force in North Carolina “to evaluate the preventive measures that were in place during the 2011 state fair and to identify additional interventions that could be applied to prevent disease transmission in livestock exhibitions where physical contact with the public might occur.” The recommendations were released on July 23, 2012.
In 2009, the CDC and a collection of state veterinarians issued an update to what were already stern guidelines for preventing illness associated with animal exhibits and petting zoos, including:
– Wash hands after contact with animals to reduce the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.
– Do not allow food, drink, or pacifiers in animal areas.
– Include transition areas between animal areas and non-animal areas.
– Educate visitors about disease risk and prevention procedures.
– Properly care for and manage animals.
But, if history is any guide, guidelines are not working very well. The bottom line is that what fairs and petting zoos are doing – or not doing – is not working.
Perhaps blaming the victims for not washing their hands is wearing thin. Perhaps, animals should be vaccinated to reduce how much pathogenic E. coli that they carry. Perhaps, animals could be tested before they arrive at the fair and excluded if they are shedding pathogens.
Something needs to be done. State and county fairs and petting zoos will get the same results if they continue to do the same thing. Continued E. coli outbreaks linked to these settings are unacceptable. Other solutions need to be tried.
Or is it simply time to ban petting zoos?
For more on past petting zoo and fair outbreaks, see www.fair-safety.com.