March 20, 2006

Study finds petting zoos can spread E. coli

ATLANTA -- Animals at petting zoos can transmit the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria, underscoring the need to lather up after visiting these facilities, health researchers said on Monday.

A study of people who visited Florida petting zoos in March 2005 concluded that the bacteria, which kills 60 people annually in the United States and causes diarrhea and other ailments, can be transmitted through contact with animals.

Another study conducted in South Carolina suggested many visitors are not taking the most basic steps to guard against illness. Researchers in South Carolina who watched visitors at a petting zoo there last year found that 28 percent of people who left the zoo did not wash their hands at faucets provided by the zoo, researchers said.

"The major takeaway is to wash your hands after visiting the zoo, wash your hands before eating after a zoo visit and inform yourself," said Daniel Chertow, a Florida Department of Health official who discussed the Florida study at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.

Chertow said E. coli transmission from animals was a growing concern. The first human E. coli outbreak tied to animals was reported to the CDC in 1996, and 10 more animal-related cases were chronicled by 2002, he said.

The most common types of contact that contributed to E. coli infection in the Florida study were feeding cows and touching or feeding goats.

But the study also showed humans don't have to touch animals to get sick. Indirect contacts that transmitted E. coli included stepping in manure and touching soiled clothing after washing hands at the zoo, the study said.

Those most likely to stave off illness lathered their hands with soap upon leaving the petting zoo, and washed up again before eating, the study found.