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The spotlight of the media has shone its unforgiving light on the recent outbreaks of E coli and the subsequent closure of numerous petting farms throughout the UK. Over 60 cases so far have been reported in children and the Health Protection Agency (the HPA) have been blamed for the scale of the problem and have had to apologise for delays in its handling of the first outbreak, promising an internal investigation.

Meanwhile, two leading experts have expressed in the media their concerns about young children under the age of five touching farm animals. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Hugh Pennington, renowned expert on transmission of animal to human and Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, said that parents should think very hard about letting very young children touch animals at petting farms like lambs, calves and young goats but he didn’t believe that all farms should close: “I think the public expects that we have a really good look at the guidelines and also at the way the guidelines are being implemented.”

0157 has not been around for more than about 20 years. It suddenly appeared in the late 1970s

He went on to explain that, while the bug doesn’t affect the animals at all, there is very little we can do once humans catch it as antibiotics do not work. He also highlighted the fact that E coli 0157 strain responsible for the outbreaks is a new bug: “0157 has not been around for more than about 20 years. It suddenly appeared in the late 1970s so people brought up on farms in the 1970s and before were never exposed to it. We don’t know where it came from, we don’t know why it developed, we don’t know why it’s so good at infecting cattle and not causing harm, yet is so devastating when it gets into people. There are mysteries which we haven’t been able to unravel. We don’t know why it’s more common in Britain than anywhere else in the world. The only other countries that have comparable rates are Canada and the US – it’s less common in Europe.”

So, what is E coli 0157 and what are the symptoms?

The HPA has provided advice. There are many different types of E coli (Escherichia coli). Some live in the intestine without causing harm, others can cause serious food poisoning and infection. The bacteria is found in faeces and can survive in the environment. Bacteria is usually spread through faecal matter reaching the mouth.

Classic symptoms that the affected children will have suffered are severe stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea (that may be bloody) which usually last for seven days. Occasionally, kidney and blood complications occur.

Good hygiene is key to stop person-to-person spread and handwashing with soap is necessary after using the toilet and before eating. In addition to care when visiting farms, people should avoid eating undercooked meat, in particular minced beef, and unpasteurised milk.

The HPA also says that children are more vulnerable to severe infections and complications because they cannot tolerate much fluid and blood loss through vomiting and diarrhoea.

Useful links: Health Protection Agency
NHS Q and A: September/Pages/EcoliQA.aspx
Our Issue 4 article on pets and animals explained the risks of E coli and gave advice on how to deal with contact with animals.