The United Kingdom now has a petting zoo debacle on its hands.
The UK’s Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) has tested feces from lambs, pigs, goats, cattle, ponies and rabbits at Godstone Farm near Surrey and found the dangerous E. coli O157:H7 strain in 33 of 102 samples. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) called in VLA.
“Joint HPA and VLA investigations have confirmed the presence of E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in feces from a wide range of animals on a premise in Surrey,” said Nigel Gibbens, chief veterinary officer.
The number of children infected with E. coli O157:H7 while visiting Godstone Farm has increased to 67. According to BBC News, eight children remain in hospitals across Southeast England “in stable or improving conditions.”
The injured are now coming forward to take legal action. Claims will be filed totaling hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to lawyers for the various families. “It is not simply about financial compensation, although that is a part of it,” said Solicitor Jill Greenfield, who represents an unnamed young girl. “Some of these children could have long term medical conditions for which they will need financial compensation.”
“But it’s far too early to tell with any of them because E. coli is a bit of a slow burner,” Solicitor Greenfield continued. “So at the moment it’s about establishing what happened, establishing the facts and finding out why so many children ended up in the hospital with E. coli.”
After controversy erupted over how long it took to close Godstone Farm to the public, three other farms with petting zoos have closed. Horton Park Children’s Farm in Epsom, which is under the same ownership as Godstone Farm; White Post Farm in Nottinghamshire; and World Country Life Farm in Exmouth, Devon are now all shut down.
HPA, the leading investigator in the UK, believes the outbreak began on Aug. 8 at Godstone Farm. Godstone Farm closed Sept. 12th. Critics say the HPA allowed the petting zoo to remain open far too long.
All 67 cases in the outbreak are linked to Godstone Farm. Horton Park, its sister zoo, was closed down for “unsatisfactory” hygiene facilities. No illnesses are yet associated with Horton Park.
White Post Farm closed after two visitors were found to be infected with the same strain of E. coli. World of Country Life closed down its petting farm and deer ride as a precaution. Two other well-known petting zoos in England remain open. Millets Farm Centre in Frilford and Farmers Gow’s near Faringdon are operating as usual.
“E. coli has been around for a while and it’s something we have always been very careful about,” says farm zoo owner Anne Gow. “When the outbreak occurred, I spoke to the National Farm Attractions Network and confirmed we’re already doing everything it advises.”
UK’s government, however, is not so certain. It has asked an expert panel to decide whether children should be prohibited from petting farm animals.
As the situation worsened over this past weekend, England’s top expert on E. coli O157:H7 asked health authorities to “think very hard” about whether “under-fives” should be allowed to touch farm animals at petting zoos.
“There is an issue here and 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,” said Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen.
UK’s Department of Health responded by naming a panel on dangerous pathogens that will review petting zoo guidelines and make recommendations for additional precautions “in light of the current outbreaks of E. coli. O157.”
Petting zoo owners charged back, saying the government should not make “knee-jerk” decisions that would impede “environmental education” of children. They say the farms are well signed with instructions for children to wash their hands, but not all people today follow such instructions.
Richard Geraghty, who is representing two outbreak victims, said in the past E. coli cases in the UK have recovered damages in excess of two million pounds ($3.24 million). “The owners of Godstone Farm had a duty to ensure their premises were safe for the public and if it is found that they have failed in this duty of care, it is likely a number of claims will be made which could amount to a payout total in excess of hundreds and thousands pounds.”