Health Break | Published September 16, 2007 | Written by Marlene Stetson, RN, CIC, director of infection prevention and control, Mount Nittany Medical Center

Animals Are Fun, But Wash Your Hands

Many communities across the US hold yearly agricultural fairs but few rival The Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair. This fair springs up at the end-of summer each year offering fair-goers a wide range of entertainment, concessions, exhibits, livestock, amusement rides and much, much, more.

Most fair goers will tell you that the food, especially the funnel cakes and sticky buns, and the chance to reunite with family and friends are among their favorites about the fair. Many will also agree that The Fair just wouldn't be complete without the animals. The animals provide enjoyment, entertainment, and an educational experience for both children and adults. Those who raise and exhibit their animals are rewarded with the pride of showing an award-winning animal while those not involved in animal agriculture get a close-up opportunity to learn more about the animals they may have only seen from a distance.

There are some obvious hazards of being kicked, stepped-on, or bitten but there is also the less recognized risk of exposure to zoonotic or animal-to-human diseases. Enteric (intestinal) infections are the most common zoonotic diseases associated with animal contact at agricultural fairs. Infections caused by the bacteria Escherichia coli O157:H7, Campylobacter sp., Salmonella enterica, and the parasite Cryptosporidium parvum represent the most common enteric infections. Other conditions such as ringworm, parasitic and other bacterial, viral, or fungal infections may also occur from animal contact.

These organisms can be found in perfectly healthy animals, usually from cattle, sheep and goats, but other animals can be a source of infection too. The organisms are usually shed in the animals fecal material and cause human infection when ingested. Because animal fur, hair and saliva can become contaminated with fecal organisms, transmission may occur when persons pet or are licked by animals. Transmission may also occur through contact with contaminated food, water and environmental surfaces.

Infections can occur in people of all ages and the severity of illness will vary depending on which organism the person is infected with and the persons ability to fight off the infection.

Don't boycott the animals barns this year, just follow some very simple, common-sense steps and reduce your risk a getting one of these infections:

  • Hand Washing

    Hand washing is the single most important prevention step. Washing with soap and water is preferred but use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer will help too. Hands should always be washed after leaving animal areas and before eating or drinking.

  • Food and Drinks

    Eating, drinking, or simply bringing food into an animal-holding area is risky, especially sticky foods like cotton candy. Food should be consumed in areas completely separated from animal-holding areas and only after thoroughly washing hands. Do not share your food with animals either.

  • Supervision of Young Children

    Young children should be supervised at all times while in animal-holding areas to prevent hand-to-mouth activities. Never allow children to put their hands or thumbs (thumb-sucking) or objects, such as pacifiers, in their mouth while interacting with animals. Parents can also help ensure that children adequately wash their hands after leaving the animal exhibit.

Animals contribute greatly to the experience of a fair. Adequate hand washing and common-sense safety measures will help ensure a safe and pleasant experience for everyone involved.

Look for Mount Nittany Medical Centers Clean Team at this year's fair. The Medical Center will provide hand sanitizer at several locations throughout the Fair. Be sure to stop by our booth in building 63 too and try the interactive hand hygiene activity—fun for both children and adults. We look forward to seeing you at the 133rd Grange Fair.

Marlene Stetson, RN is the infection prevention and control coordinator at Mount Nittany Medical Center.