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Kids and Petting Zoos

Simple Steps Can Prevent Infections at Petting Zoos
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WebMD Feature

Five cases of life-threatening kidney failure highlight the needs for parents to take special precautions when their child visits a petting zoo.

According to published repots, five children in Florida have developed a condition that likely stems from contact with animals infected with a strain of E. coli bacteria called 0157:H7. Usually this infection comes from eating undercooked beef or contaminated food. These children may have been exposed to E. coli through animal feces, according to health officials.

The five children have developed a complication of E. coli infection called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. Four of the children had visited a local fair in Orlando, Fla. The fifth child developed the infection after visiting a petting zoo in Plant City, Fla.

E. Coli Symptoms

Infection with this strain of E. coli can cause severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea, which may become bloody by the second or third day, according to the medical experts at MedicineNet.com, a WebMD company. Nausea and vomiting are present in approximately half of the patients. Most patients recover in seven to 10 days, but some (6%) go on to have HUS. This is most likely to happen in children and the elderly. Some patients develop brain problems, such as seizures. Many patients require dialysis and blood transfusions. About 3% to 5% of people with HUS die.

This is not the first time that an outbreak of E. coli has occurred from visiting a petting zoo. In 2001, 16 children who had visited a petting zoo at Merrymead Farm in Worcester, Pa., developed E. coli and another 45 people were suspected to have become ill from the bacteria.

Such outbreaks are rare, says Elichia A. Venso, PhD, director and associate professor of environmental health science at Salisbury State University in Maryland. But incidents like these put the spotlight on petting zoo safety.

But parents don't need to avoid such zoos altogether, says Venso. They just need to know how to keep E. coli and other animal-borne organisms from infecting their kids.

E. coli is one of the most common bacteria around. E. coli bacteria cannot penetrate the skin, so simply touching an animal or area contaminated with it doesn't pose a threat. However, touching the eyes, nose, mouth, or other mucus membranes after touching a contaminated surface is a major route of infection. So is ingesting E. coli-contaminated food. For young children -- whose immune systems can be hit hard by this bacteria, and who tend to put everything in their mouths -- the potential for illness is clear.

Because animals carrying E. coli 0157:H7 -- typically cattle -- generally don't show any signs of illness, it is impossible for parents to tell if an animal is infected just by looking at it, says Bhushan Jayarao, MVSc, PhD, MPH, an extension veterinarian with the department of veterinary science at Pennsylvania State University.

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