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90 percent of farmers in Ireland unaware of animal pathogens

Nine out of 10 farmers in Ireland are unaware that healthy animals can be a source of infection people, including their families. More than half don’t know that they can pick up diseases from sick poultry or pets, according to a survey.

Further, more than 40 percent of more than 1,000 Irish farmers surveyed drink unpasteurized milk at least once a week, indicating they continue to potentially expose themselves and their families to pathogenic organisms in their milk, The Irish Examiner reported.

Unpasteurized, or raw, milk can carry harmful bacteria such as Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, verotoxigenic and E. coli.

The survey done to determine farmers’ knowledge of the risk of spread of infection was published in the journal Epidemiology and Infection. It found that farmers younger than 45 are more likely than older farmers to know what zoonosis is – the possibility of catching an infection from healthy or sick livestock and pets.

According to Epi-Insight, an online publication from the Health Protection Surveillance Center, Ireland’s agency for the surveillance of communicable diseases, 60 percent of all pathogens that make people sick — viruses, bacteria, prion or funguses — are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted naturally from vertebrate animals to humans.

Zoonoses are transmitted by consuming contaminated foods or beverages, bites, scratches, inhalation or skin contact. Indirect transmission can take place through contact with contaminated clothing or shoes, animal bedding, flooring, barriers and other environmental surfaces such as countertops.

The survey did show that farmers in Ireland know the risk to pregnant women of infection from birthing animals is high – 88 percent. Farmers older than 45 are more likely to identify aborting animals as a source of infection in people.

Of the farmers surveyed, 93 percent reported washing their hands before eating or smoking while on the farm. But a third said they don’t wear jumpsuits or wet gear while working. Of those who do wear protective clothing, nearly one quarter said they don’t take it off before going into their homes. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends that farm work clothes or footwear not be worn in the home because they can spread E. coli and other pathogens and residues.

Almost three-quarters of 1,044 farmers surveyed said they get their drinking water from private wells, and of those, 62 percent said they test that water less than once a year.

The Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland has reported that 25 percent of groundwater supplies there are contaminated with fecal coliforms. It recommends annual testing of private well water for bacterial contamination.

The survey results illustrate the need for further education to increase the awareness of potential biohazards from livestock and practical measures that can be taken to mitigate the risk of zoonotic infection, according to the report by Sarah Doyle and Marrita Mahon of Health Protection Surveillance Center South East.

“The fact that most farmers accessed information on diseases on the farm from multiple sources, suggests that a multi-faceted, One Health approach to infectious disease prevention in the farming community is merited,” they said.

One Health is a unified human and veterinary approach to combat zoonotic diseases.

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