The May 2010 edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases contains a report about an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in Scotland (McGuigan et al. 2010). Cryptosporidiosis is a common parasitic disease caused by Cryptosporidium, a protozoal parasite. It causes diarrhea, which is usually annoying (to say the least) but self-limiting in healthy people, but the infection is potentially fatal in people with compromised immune systems.

An investigation was launched after a single case of cyrptosporidiosis was diagnosed by a Scottish laboratory. The reason a single infection caused such concern is that it was suspected to have originated from contact with lambs at a wildlife centre, so there was potential for exposure of many people. The concerns were valid, since a total of 128 cases of cryptosporidosis were uncovered during their investigation, and 117 of the people affected had visited the wildlife centre. Another 252 unconfirmed cases were also identified.

The investigation suggested that direct contact with diarrheic lambs was the source of infection. Lambs (and calves) are high risk for shedding Cryptosporidium, even when they’re healthy.  Diarrhea increase the risk of transmission from these animals even more, because diarrheic animals are more likely to (1) shed the parasite and (2) have fecal staining of their haircoats, which increases the likelihood of fecal contact for every person and animal around them. That’s why young ruminants (e.g. lambs, calves) as well as young poultry are considered inappropriate for petting zoos and other similar public animal contact events. This outbreak is yet another example of why these recommendations are in place.

At the wildlife centre in this study, children were apparently encouraged to pick up the lambs, despite visible diarrhea. No handwashing facilities were near the lamb petting area and it took "considerable effort" to find a location to wash your hands anywhere on site. Alcohol hand sanitizers were available, however Cryptosporidium is resistant to alcohol. Handwashing is a critical component of disease prevention, but unfortunately it is very underused. In general, people are becoming much more aware of the need for handwashing, but even so, if handwashing facilities are not conveniently located, people tend not to go to much effort to find them. That leads to increased risk of infections, as was the case here.

Control measures at the wildlife centre implemented after the investigation included removal of the lambs (who should never have been there anyway), disinfection of the premises with bleach (although disinfecting a farm environment is very difficult, and Cryptosporidium is also resistant to bleach), and stopping direct contact between animals and visitors.

As we enter the season when there are more fairs, petting zoos and other animal contact events, facility managers need to pay attention to important factors like:

  • Readily available hand hygiene facilities
  • Good design to control the types of human-animal contact and to steer people towards hand hygiene stations
  • Appropriate animals: no calves, lambs or chicks
  • Proper supervision of people and animals

A little common sense goes a long way. The goal is to set up these events so that there is still a beneficial impact of seeing and interacting with animals while reducing (but never eliminating) the risk of disease transmission. A 100% safe petting zoo is not achievable (there’s always some risk in life), but some pretty simple measures can greatly reduce the risks while still providing excellent entertainment and educational opportunities.