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U.S., States putting fairs on foot-mouth, e.Coli alerts; <br> CDC urging fairgoers to wash hands after petting animals

U.S., states putting fairs on foot-mouth, E.coli alerts;
CDC urging fairgoers to wash hands after petting animals

July 1, 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Karen Macpherson

As the summer fair season kicks into high gear, federal and state agriculture officials are working to try to prevent outbreaks of foot and mouth disease among animals and E.coli bacteria among people.

Officials are sending informational brochures to exhibitors and printing signs to educate fairgoers about the dangers of foot and mouth disease. And the Centers for Disease Control are warning people to wash their hands after petting animals to avoid getting sick.

The CDC made the recommendations after investigating cases in Pennsylvania and Washington state last year where dozens of children and adults came down with illnesses caused by E.coli picked up at petting zoos.

Foot and mouth disease has financially devastated livestock farmers in England and other parts of Europe this year. U.S. border officials have been on high alert to guard against any introduction of the disease here. The last U.S. outbreak of foot and mouth disease occurred in 1929.

Jim Tucker, president and chief executive officer of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions, said for the first time in his memory his organization recommended that state and county fairs post signs about foot and mouth disease.

The signs ask fairgoers who have been outside of the United States in the past five days to keep away from the livestock area as a precaution against spreading the disease since it can be carried on shoes without the wearer's knowledge. The association recommends that the signs be posted at a fair's entry gates and also at the entrance to the livestock areas.

The association, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has developed other "biosecurity guidelines" for protecting animals and humans at fairs and other agricultural shows.

These include recommendations that all exhibited animals have veterinary exams before heading to an event, and that the animals are regularly checked by veterinarians during the event.

Although there is a heightened awareness, Tucker said he has not heard of any county fair being canceled because of worries about spreading the virus.

"We are erring on the side of caution," Tucker said. "I think fair officials need to be prudent about this. But it's not a terribly worrisome or panicked situation, either."

At the Allegheny County Fair and Exposition, which continues today at South Park, exhibitors and organizers have few fears of hoof and mouth, but are following commonsense procedures.

A series of signs in the livestock areas show some furry critters and a pair of handprints with the message: "If you touch these, wash these."

"We're just reminding people that it's important," said fair board member and county extension agent Deno DeChantis.

According to DeChantis, the primary concern is the possible transmission of E.coli bacteria.

DeChantis said organizers have washrooms along the exits of the livestock arena and, near a petting area, hand sanitizing stations have been set up.

However, fear of spreading the disease here has caused the cancellation of one major U.S. agriculture event, the 2001 World Pork Expo, which had been scheduled for June in Des Moines, Iowa. The Expo annually attracts 40,000 pork producers and consumers, including 2,000 visitors from 60 countries, organizers say.

Officials of another major agricultural event, the World Dairy Expo, have decided to hold their event as planned in October in Madison, Wis. The Dairy Expo draws more than 70,000 visitors each year, according to organizers.

In Pennsylvania, biosecurity plans developed by state agriculture officials call for state veterinarians to check the animals at county fairs for signs of foot and mouth disease at least every other day. With 100 county fairs involving animals in Pennsylvania, that's a big summertime job, said Ron Miller, chief of the livestock and fairs division of the state agriculture department.

In its guidelines for fairs and other agricultural shows, the USDA has recommended that visitors be discouraged "through the use of fencing, signs and monitors from touching or petting exhibited animals, except at designated petting exhibits."

But most state and county fairs apparently won't outright prohibit visitors from touching the livestock this summer. Fair officials say such a ban doesn't seem necessary because of other safety precautions.

A ban on touching animals at fairs also would be nearly impossible to enforce, fair officials and animal experts said.

"People's first instinct is to pet an animal," said Virgil Strickler, assistant general manager and agricultural director of the Ohio State Fair. "We want to be able to have that interaction between our exhibitors and our visitors."

As at other fairs, however, the Ohio State Fair, which runs from Aug. 3-19 in Columbus, will have signs urging visitors to clean their hands after petting animals. To make it easier, there will be an increased number of hand "sanitizer" stations set up.

These hand sanitizer stations also will help fair officials deal with the spread of E.coli bacteria from animals to people.

The CDC recommended earlier this year that petting zoo operators warn visitors about the potential for picking up E.coli bacteria from animals, especially cows and calves.

The CDC also recommended that petting zoos provide visitors with immediate access to facilities for cleaning their hands.

"Where running water is not available, hand sanitizers may be better than using nothing," CDC officials said.

Many fairs are opting for increased hand sanitizing stations, which are easier to install than sinks with running water. At many fairs this year, visitors will be directed to hand sanitizing stations featuring an alcohol-based gel that fairgoers can pump out of a bottle and then rub on their hands.

The gel kills germs and then evaporates. Because it doesn't need to be washed off, hand sanitizers are easier to use in places like fairgrounds where running water isn't always readily available, fair officials said.

William H. Stinson, executive director of the Indiana State Fair, said he will triple the number of hand sanitizing stations at the fair this year, and increase the number of signs urging people to use them.

"People really responded to them last year," Stinson said.

Beverly Gruber, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs, said the CDC recommendations have convinced some county fairs to get rid of petting areas where fairgoers interact with animals in an enclosure.

Most fairs, however, don't have that kind of set-up, and instead keep a fence between visitors and animals in their petting areas, she added. Other fairs just don't have petting zoos, eliminating the problem altogether, Gruber said.


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