Danger at the petting zoo

Last spring, petting zoos made headlines when 26 people–most of them children–fell ill during an E. coli outbreak in Florida. The bacteria was traced to farm animals. Experts suspect the animals’ fur or enclosures may have been contaminated with manure, a source or E. coli bacteria.

The children were the hardest hit, many of them suffering days of horrible stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. Some endured more serious complications: One five-year-old girl developed a life-threatening kidney infection from the bacteria. (As of early April, she was still in critical condition.)

This petting zoo incident is not isolated: Over the past four years, zoo-related E. coli outbreaks have affected some 300 children in Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Such zoos now “pose a threat to public health,” says Jeff Bender, an assistant professor of veterinary public health at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Simply touching the animals isn’t the problem, Bender explains, because the bacteria does not enter through the skin. Instead, it makes its way into a child’s mouth when he sucks his thumb or bites his fingernails afterward. That’s why hygiene is so essential–and why you have to keep a close eye on your kids.

You don’t have to avoid petting zoos, adds Cody Messner, M.D., chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Tufts–New England Medical Center in Boston, if you follow these safety rules:

* Be aware that even the cleanest-looking animal and pen can harbor E. coli.

It’s impossible to keep animal enclosures completely free of manure. And remember that other potentially serious pathogens, such as salmonella, ringworm, and giardia, can also be transmitted from animals in a petting zoo to humans.

* Don’t allow kids to put their fingers in their mouths after touching the animals.

If your child is too young to understand this, then it’s best to carry the child or to have him avoid physical contact with the animals by staying outside the enclosure.

* Keep food, toys, bottles, and pacifiers away from kids while they’re in the zoo.

According to one study, children who drink from a sippy cup or use a pacifier while visiting an animal’s enclosure are at a higher risk of getting sick. That’s because kids touch these objects after petting the animals, then put the objects in their mouths. Your child’s hands should be empty before coming in contact with animals and should stay empty until she has exited the animal area and washed her hands.

* Always make sure your children wash their hands properly.

After your kids wet their hands with running water, place a generous amount of soap in their palms. Have them rub their hands together to make a big, foamy lather and scrub vigorously for 20 seconds. Rinse, then dry kids’ hands with a disposable paper towel. Don’t let children wipe their hands on their shirt or pants–their clothes may have brushed up against the animals. If possible, turn off the faucet using a disposable towel.

If running water is not available, the best substitute is one of the alcohol-based instant-sanitizing gels on the market. Be generous with these products: Saturate fronts and backs of hands and wrists, and make sure to clean under fingernails.

* Watch for symptoms.

If your child becomes ill–with bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and/or stomach cramps–consult your doctor immediately. Experts also recommend avoiding antidiarrheal medicines and antibiotics because they may make an E. coli infection worse.