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Caution, not panic urged at ag fairs

By Keryn Page

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A Mississippi State University veterinarian is urging parents to make educated, not panicked, decisions about taking their children to petting zoos and other agriculture-related settings.

Dr. Carla Huston, an assistant professor of epidemiology in MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, said the recent Escherichia coli 0157:H7 outbreak in Florida has frightened many parents into believing they should avoid agricultural settings altogether. The March outbreak caused several children to become seriously ill after visiting one of three petting zoos in Florida.

Huston said there are many strains of E. coli, and the majority of them are not harmful to humans or animals. The particular strain in question is especially dangerous for children because they haven't built up as much immunity as healthy adults. However, other people also are at higher risk, including the elderly, pregnant women and HIV-infected people.

Huston compared the risk of contracting this pathogen at a petting zoo to the risk of being involved in an automobile accident. She said drunk drivers kill more people per day than E. coli 0157:H7 does in a year.

"Everything we do in life carries risks, and it's our job to know how to mitigate those risks," Huston said. "It's a risk to go swimming or to put children on a school bus. It's a risk to drive a car or eat food from a restaurant. There's never no risk. Of course, when you are the target of such an adverse circumstance, the risk seems to be much bigger."

Huston said some people will choose to avoid the risk altogether by not visiting petting zoos, agricultural fairs or other animal-related settings.

"There's nothing wrong with risk avoidance, but you need to be practical," Huston said.

The veterinarian also stressed that avoiding agricultural settings will not result in a zero risk of contracting pathogens. Cases of illness also can be related to drinking water and food consumption, among other things.

People who want to reduce their risk of contracting pathogens while still attending agricultural events can take a simple, yet very effective, step to prevent illness.

"Hand-washing is the No. 1 risk management activity available. If there are bathrooms with good running water and soap, that's the best thing you can do. Running water and rubbing your hands together is the best way to get rid of bacteria on your hands," Huston said. "If running water and soap are not available, hand sanitizers are the next-best thing."

While some evidence suggests these products are not as effective as soap and water, Huston said she carries hand sanitizer as a precaution.

Thorough hand-washing is especially important before eating. Huston advised going one step further and avoiding food consumption totally while in the presence of animals. Parents also should pay close attention to young children who tend to put their hands in their mouths.

Thomas Wittum, an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at The Ohio State University, conducted a study of 29 county fairs and three state fairs to determine the prevalence of E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella in agricultural fair settings. Wittum presented a seminar at MSU to discuss his findings.

Wittum took samples from beef cattle, dairy cattle and swine, and tested for the two pathogens.

"Everywhere we looked, we found a little Salmonella and E. coli, just as expected," Wittum said. Ninety-six percent of the fairs had at least one positive sample for Salmonella, and 100 percent of fairs had at least one positive sample for E. coli.

"Because most cases of E. coli are not severe enough to seek treatment, we have to wonder how many of these fair-associated cases happen each year," Wittum said.

Wittum said despite his findings, he still will take his own children to agricultural fairs and petting zoos.

"I like taking my kids to the fair. I don't think we should stop being able to go to the fair," Wittum said. "There are steps to make it safer; people just have to take those steps."

Wittum said child-care center leaders must know the risks associated with petting zoos and take the necessary precautions to avoid illness. He advised waiting until children are 4 years old before visiting petting zoos because 2- to 3-year-olds are in the higher-risk group. He agreed that food should not be part of a petting zoo experience.

"Awareness and education of the risks and prevention are key to making human-animal interactions safe. Child-care providers need awareness of the risk and need to know the precautions to take," Wittum said. "There's no way to get zero risk, but we need to take preventive measures."

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Released: April 14, 2005
Contact: Dr. Carla Huston, (662) 325-1183

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