Concern over pet area restrictions

Tourist attractions in the region last night condemned possible plans to ban children under five from animal petting areas in the light of a serious E.

Tourist attractions in the region last night condemned possible plans to ban children under five from animal petting areas in the light of a serious E.coli outbreak elsewhere in the country as “sad” and “impractical”.

The Department of Health confirmed yesterday that a committee was looking into the possibility of changing guidelines in this way in response to the serious outbreak of E.coli 0157 infection at Godstone Farm in Surrey.

Its announcement came on the same day that two experts also expressed reservations about existing controls.

Microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington said there was an issue because youngsters were "the most difficult part of the population to get to wash their hands' while also "most likely to touch the animals'.

Meanwhile, Professor Ron Cutler, an expert on infectious diseases, called for “logical controls” and said zoos should even think about giving people nail brushes to make sure their hands were clean after a visit.

However, Mike Woolham, animal manager at Banham Zoo, said: “E.coli 0157 is a nasty bacterium but stopping contact with animals would be a really sad thing.

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“An age restriction would be practicably difficult to control, although if the government introduced new guidelines we would follow them like anyone else.”

He stressed that Banham and its sister zoo, Africa Alive, near Lowestoft, already had stringent precautions in place to protect staff and visitors.

Animals in petting areas, such as goats and sheep, were regularly screened for dangerous bacteria. There were also hand-washing facilities and warning notices at every site.

Bernie Bunn, at Melsop Farm Park, near Watton, said: “Guidelines restricting the age when children can touch animals would be difficult to enforce when a mum might come in with three children aged three, five and seven.

“It would probably mean we would have to pen all our animals. We have always believed that coming into close contact with animals helps teach children respect for them.”

He said they encouraged visitors to use anti-bacterial soap and hot water and that message was always reinforced to parents and children at the 300 birthday parties they held each year.

A spokeswoman for Pettitts Animal Adventure Park, at Reedham, near Yarmouth, confirmed they already had stringent precautions in place with soap and water and hand-cleaning gel as well as notices urging people to wash their hands after touching animals. However, she would not comment on the wider issues.

The Department of Health currently does not advise against contact, but advocates thorough hand washing.

Its spokesman said: "The risk of infection from E.coli 0157 through petting farm animals can be prevented by following everyday good hand hygiene measures.

"Ill health following a visit to an open farm is unusual even among children and these risks need to be balanced against the benefits for a child's education and development that arise from contact with animals.'

Eight more cases linked to Godstone Farm in Surrey were confirmed over the weekend, taking the total to 57 since the bug was first identified in August.

E.coli - symptoms include diarrhoea and vomiting - can be especially dangerous in young children because they cannot tolerate much fluid loss. It can lead to kidney failure.