The investigation into a large E. coli O157 outbreak linked to a UK petting zoo continues, and the number of potentially exposed people is astounding. There are a couple of reasons that I write a fair bit about petting zoos, and they are highlighted here: the potential for exposure of a large number of people and the predominance of children. In this outbreak, it is feared that tens of thousands of people may have been exposed since problems started in August. The exact number of infected people is currently unclear but is in the "dozens," including some with hemolytic uremia, a severe kidney disorder. One report says there are 36 sick people, including 12 children under the age of 10. It’s pretty likely that these numbers will increase, and that even more cases will go undiagnosed because they were mild and people didn’t get tested.
This week, testing has been performed on animals and environmental areas on the farm to look at sources of E. coli O157. I’m not sure why this wasn’t done a while ago. However, at this point, it’s mainly going to be useful to confirm that the E. coli strain infecting people is also present in animals on the farm. Finding or not finding the bacterium at various environmental sites at one point in time really doesn’t say much about where it was when people were getting infected. If E. coli was in the animals, it’s likely to contaminate various environmental areas. If petting zoo design and hygiene were not optimal, this could result in contamination of visitors’ areas.
Some parents have complained that the farm was allowed to remain open for more than two weeks after the first cases of E. coli were reported. That’s a very valid concern and one that should be clearly addressed. Once there was reasonable suspicion of the farm being involved, measures should have been taken to reduce further exposure. A good synopsis of these events is available here. It certainly depicts a less-than-stellar response to a potential outbreak. Although you don’t want to over-react and close a facility that was not actually the source, given the potential severity of disease and massive number of people that could be exposed, public health concerns need to supercede economic concerns in situations like this.
Petting zoos will never be "no risk." There is an inherent risk of infectious disease transmission any time you interact with an animal. That being said, there are standard recommendations that are in place to greatly reduce the risk of disease transmission. I don’t know much about the quality of infection control practices on this farm, but it’s likely they could be better. One writer to timesonline describes how kids are allowed to climb in with the animals and chase after herds of pigs, which certainly suggests a lack of proper control.
People running petting zoos need to take their role in protecting the public seriously. That includes protection from infectious disease and injuries such as bites. Public health authorities need to take a more proactive role. Instead of the standard approach of just providing documents or signs, these events need to be inspected and any problems need to be identified and addressed. The key is to use basic, practical measures that reduce the risk while maintaining the positive aspects of the petting zoo. It’s getting better in many areas, but there’s clearly still room for improvement.