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HPA issues hand washing reminder ahead of petting farm season

Ahead of the petting farm season, the HPA is reminding people, especially those with responsibility for young children, to enjoy their farm visits safely by ensuring good hand hygiene after touching farm animals or their surroundings.

Outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness associated with contact with farm animals peak in the spring and summer as this coincides with schools holidays when visits to petting farms tend to be more popular, although outbreaks can occur at other times.

The route of transmission in these illnesses, which include the infections E. coli O157 and Cryptosporidium, is direct contact with animals in petting and feeding areas as well as contact with the droppings of animals on contaminated surfaces around farms.

Dr Bob Adak, head of the gastrointestinal diseases department at the HPA, said: “Ahead of the Easter weekend when families may be thinking about visiting a farm, everyone needs to remember the importance of hand washing after contact with animals.

“Farm visits can be a very enjoyable experience for both children and adults and a few simple precautions will help avoid illness and ensure everyone enjoys a fun day out.

“Children need to be carefully supervised to ensure that they don’t put their hands in their mouth directly after petting the animals, which naturally carry germs. When everyone has finished petting and handling the animals they need to wash their hands thoroughly using soap and water and to dry them before eating.

“It’s also very important to remember that hand gels or wipes have their uses in areas that are generally clean, such as offices or hospitals, but they are not effective in completely removing from soiled hands bugs such as E.coli or Cryptosporidium that are commonly found in animal droppings and on contaminated surfaces around farms. This is why washing the hands thoroughly with soap and water is so important - it is the only way to effectively remove the bacteria and reduce the risk of becoming unwell.”

Figures from the HPA’s national surveillance system show that there were 61 outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness associated with farms visits between 1992 and 2011. Twenty two of these outbreaks (36 per cent) occurred in the last three years (2009-11).

Around half were caused by E. coli O157 and around half were caused by Cryptosporidium. A handful were caused by Salmonella. Overall 1,238 people were affected in these outbreaks – 1,003 people with Cryptosporidium and 235 with E. coli O157.

Notes for editors:

  1. More information about gastrointestinal disease can be found on the HPA website:
  2. The Health Protection Agency is an independent UK organisation that was set up by the government in 2003 to protect the public from threats to their health from infectious diseases and environmental hazards. In April 2013, subject to the usual approvals procedures for establishing new bodies, the Health Protection Agency will become part of a new organisation called Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health. To find out more, visit our website: www.hpa.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @HPAuk.  
  3. For more information please contact the national HPA press office at Colindale on 0208 327 7901 or email colindale-pressoffice@hpa.org.uk. Out of hours the duty press officer can be contacted on 0208 200 4400.


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