You have probably heard about people, especially children getting ill after visiting petting zoos or fairs. How can you enjoy the fair and reduce the risk of getting ill?
“Visits to petting zoos, open farms, zoological gardens and agricultural fairs provide an enjoyable, entertaining and education experience for children and adults alike”, said Jeff LeJeune, a veterinary researcher with Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster. However, Jeff added, “Eating, drinking or simply bringing food into an animal-holding area can be hazardous. People who eat or drink in those areas are almost five times more likely to get ill than people who don’t eat or drink there. Studies have also shown that kids who sucked their thumbs or a pacifier or drank from a sippy cup in those places were 26 times more likely to become sick.”
The increase in animal exhibit-related cases of intestinal disease may be tied to the growing population shift from rural to urban environments, of which Ohio is a prime example. As a result, LeJeune said that patterns of interactions between humans and farm animals have changed from frequent daily activities associated with farm life to less frequent events that are clustered in space and time, such as visits to petting zoos and state and county fair exhibits.
The problem is that even healthy farm animals can be excreting microorganisms that cause serious human diseases. “Since these pathogens are microscopic it’s not possible to know if a surface, food or water is contaminated just by looking at it. Also many of these organisms can survive for extended periods of time in the environment attached to dust and debris, which can then contaminate food, beverages, food wrappers and drinking straws. You don’t need to get manure in your hand to become exposed to these pathogens.”
What can you do to minimize the risk of infection?
LeJeune said the two main precautions are to properly wash their hands and refrain from eating or drinking in areas with animals.
“Investigations of several animal exhibit-associated disease outbreaks among people has clearly identified hand-washing as an important, if not the single most important factor in preventing disease,” he explained. “Hand washing should be done with large amounts of water, preferably warm, and with soap. Hands should be washed for at least 20 seconds and dried with a single-use paper towel. Food and drinks should be stored and consumed in areas completely separated from where the animals are held and only consumed after thoroughly washing hands.”
Waterless hand sanitizers should only be relied upon if there are not other means of adequately washing hands, as these have not been documented as effective in animal housing environments.”
Going to the fair is a great family activity and with some precautions can still be safe. Be sure to wash your hands well and refrain from eating or drinking in areas with animals. Come and enjoy the upcoming Fayette County Fair July 17-22. See you there!
Pat Brinkman is the Family and Consumer Sciences Educator for OSU Extension in Fayette County.