Hand washing is paramount after handling animals in public places, according to new guidelines on animal handling from the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NAPHV).

pettingzoorisks-featured.jpgThis month the association released updated recommendations on how to prevent the spread of disease from live animals to humans in public settings. The compendium of measures to curb zoonotic disease, which is posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website, is revised periodically. The last version was released in 2009.

“Animals are a very important part of education as well as entertainment,” said Casey Barton Behravesh, veterinary epidemiologist at the CDC in an interview with Food Safety News. “Because there are risks of getting diseases from animals, especially those in public settings, it’s important for people to be aware that there are risks and know how to prevent [them],” she said. 

What exactly are the risks of getting sick from contact with animals at a petting zoo or barnyard? According to past data from CDC, between 1996 and 2010 approximately 150 outbreaks of disease in the U.S. were linked to animals.

In England, almost 100 people — including 76 children under 10 — were sickened by E. coli O157:H7 contracted at a public farm in Surrey in the summer of 2009. That same year, an outbreak in Colorado originating at the National Western Stock show led to 30 illnesses and 9 hospitalizations.

The most crucial step in avoiding zoonotic disease is washing one’s hands as often as possible when visiting a barn or pen, says the report. In past outbreaks, people who washed their hands after exposure to live animals were much less likely to get sick, according to the report. 

One of the ways animal exhibits can address this problem is by providing hand washing stations, it says.

The compendium also stresses the importance of taking certain precautions when hosting an animal exhibit, including putting up barriers between humans and animals, keeping all surfaces sanitized, and posting signs for visitors outlining safety measures.

New to the document this year is an extra emphasis on education as key to controlling zoonotic pathogens. In addition to notifying visitors of the risks associated with animals, venue operators should become familiar with the best practices for keeping facilities safe, and educate workers on how to implement these, it says.

It also takes into account recent news about amphibian safety in light of 222 Salmonella infections in 41 states that have been linked to contact with pet African dwarf water frogs. This nationwide outbreak may have been ongoing since April 2008.  Many of those sickened have been very young, and many of the children became so ill they required hospitalization.

“Because of what we’ve learned from this outbreak, the updated recommendations include that these African dwarf frogs and other amphibians should not be in childcare centers or schools because of the risk to young children,” says Behravesh.

Specifically, the guidelines warn that special care should be taken when children under 5 come into contact with animals. In addition to amphibians, other dangerous exposures include poultry, reptiles and sick animals.

And while the guidelines focus on infectious diseases, they also touch on how to avoid other dangers associated with animals, such as biting or kicking.

There are no current federal laws dictating the safe handling of animals in public places; however many states have developed their own regulations, and there are national standards for safe animal handling.

The authors of the new compendium hope that its recommendations will enhance these efforts to keep people safe and help them understand some of the risks.

The document is intended for a wide audience, including public health officials and animal health exhibitors and visitors.

“It’s targeted towards anyone who’s involved with exhibiting animals in public settings. That includes schools, daycares and childcare facilities,” says Behravesh.

The report has been endorsed by CDC, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemeologists, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, the American Association of Extension Veterinarians and the American Veterinary Medical Association.