People in Cornwall are being warned to practise good hand hygiene when visiting farm attractions following a warning from Public Health England

Cornwall Council’s Public Health and Protection (PH&P) team regularly visit the owners of petting farms and other animal visitor attractions to give them advice on how to prevent their visitors being at risk of falling ill and reminding the public to take care and wash hands after being in contact with animals.

John Dickinson, from the authority said: “Farm visits are great fun. They play a valuable part in the education and development of children and young adults and provide an enjoyable experience for many people. However, it is important to remember that a range of infections can be passed on through contact with animals unless care is taken to avoid them.

“The risk of becoming unwell from illnesses such as E.coli O157 is very low as thousands of people visit such attractions and there are on average only three outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease linked to visits to petting farms every year.

"The route of infection in these outbreaks is generally through contact with germs from animals. These germs are ingested when people contaminate food they handle or eat or when they put their fingers or other contaminated objects such as dummies or soothers in their mouths.”

To reduce the risk of illness, adults and children should thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water after they have handled animals or touched surfaces at the farm, and always before eating or drinking.

"Hand-washing is the single most important prevention step in reducing the spread of gastrointestinal infections after handling animals”, explains John; “It is important that attraction owners provide good, well signed hand washing facilities, ideally located at the point where visitors leave the animal contact area. Responsible adults should closely supervise their children when they are petting the animals and washing their hands.”

Dr Mark Kealy, consultant in communicable disease control for Devon, Cornwall and Somerset said: “Visiting a farm is a very enjoyable experience for both children and adults alike but it's important to remember that contact with farm animals carries a risk of infection because of the microorganisms - or germs - they carry.

“Anyone visiting a petting farm should be aware of the need to wash their hands thoroughly using soap and water after they have handled animals or been in their surroundings. Children are more at risk of serious illness and should be closely supervised to make sure that they wash their hands thoroughly.

“It is also very important not to rely on hand gels and wipes for protection because these are not suitable against the sort of germs found on farms.

“By being aware and by doing these simple things we can help to avoid illness and enjoy a fun day out.”

Cornwall Council cabinet member for homes and communities Geoff Brown says: “We have several very well run attractions in Cornwall where children and adults alike can go and meet farm animals and learn more about them. It is important for us all to have an appreciation for all animals but we must be sensible of our responsibility to look after ourselves and our children. 

There has been a marked reduction in the number of reported cases of E.coli O157 in Cornwall associated with the consumption of food products since the Council’s commercial food and safety team have adopted a robust approach during inspections. They have also offered guidance and training to ensure that food businesses operators (FBO’s) are fully aware of the risks and have adequate preventative measures in place to avoid cross contamination risks.

Parents planning to take their children to visitor attractions with animals are urged to take particular care with hand-washing and to follow the instructions provided at the attraction.

As well as thorough hand washing, visitors are advised:

• Do not put hands on faces or fingers in mouths while petting animals or walking round the farm

• Do not kiss farm animals nor allow children to put their faces close to animals

• Do not eat or drink while touching animals or walking round the farm. This includes not eating sweets, crisps or chewing gum

• Do not eat anything that has fallen on the floor

• Do not use gels or wipes instead of washing hands with soap and water. Gels and wipes do not remove microorganisms that are often hidden by other materials such as dirt

• Do wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after you have touched animals, fences or other surfaces in animal areas

• Do wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating or drinking.

• Do remove and clean boots or shoes that might have become soiled and clean pushchair wheels. Then wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water • Do supervise children closely to ensure that they wash their hands thoroughly • Do eat and drink in picnic areas or cafes only.

• Do have a great time!

If you or anyone in your group is sick or has diarrhoea within two weeks of visiting a farm, contact your GP or call NHS 111 as soon as possible. If you or anyone in your group, particularly a young child, has bloody diarrhoea, seek immediate emergency medical attention.

Children under five should not attend school/nursery/group childcare until they have been free of sickness or diarrhoea for two days. Tests may be required to confirm that a child is free from infection.

Parents should confirm with their health professional whether it is safe for them to return before the child returns to school or nursery.

Further advice for anyone with a petting farm is available from Cornwall Council’s Public Health and Protection team on 0300 1234 212.