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FSAI Urges Farms to be More Vigilant Against Verotoxigenic E. coli Infection

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) today warned of the risks of farm-related verotoxigenic E. coli infection.  This comes on foot of a dramatic 118% increase in cases of verotoxigenic E. coli in Ireland, as compared to last year.  Provisional figures show 547 cases of verotoxigenic E. coli infection were recorded to date by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, compared with 251 during the same period in 2011.  Most of these cases occurred in rural areas and almost half occurred in children under five years of age.  Most E. coli bacteria are harmless, but some types are extremely harmful and can cause severe stomach pains and bloody diarrhoea, and can also progress to cause kidney failure and death in some cases.  Young children and infants are particularly at risk from this infection and special attention must be paid to protect their health. 

The FSAI is urging farmers to ensure they have robust hygiene practices in place to reduce the risk of infection with this potentially life threatening bug.  The FSAI today published a leaflet: E. coli – How to Reduce the Risk from Your Farm offering practical advice and tips to farmers on how to protect people on the farm, including visitors and children, from becoming infected.  This advice also applies to open farms and the recreational use of farmland.

Prof. Alan Reilly, Chief Executive, FSAI, expressed his concern at this increase in cases stating that farmers have a critical role to play in reducing risk of infection.  He stated that infection from contaminated private water supplies or farm animals and their environment, followed by person-to-person spread in childcare facilities or families with young children are well recognised causes of verotoxigenic E. coli outbreaks.  

 “Because their immune systems are still developing, babies and young children are most at risk of becoming seriously ill from this infection.  It can be easily spread to others such as their siblings or other children in their crèche or at their childminder.  Therefore, it is vitally important that special attention must be paid to protect children’s health, such as washing their hands after they have been playing on the farm.  Children suffering from diarrhoea or vomiting must also be kept away from their crèche or childminder until they are clear of symptoms for 48 hours,” stated Prof. Reilly.

 “Vigilance is of paramount importance when it comes to safeguarding against infection from verotoxigenic E. coli, especially on farms.  Simple measures can go a long way toward reducing this risk such as: practicing good hygiene; not drinking unpasteurised milk; keeping animals clean; using organic fertilisers safely and always using a safe water supply,” added Prof. Reilly.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include bloody diarrhoea and severe stomach cramps.  In its mildest form, the symptoms often clear up within approximately eight days, but children may continue to shed the bacterium for much longer. However, some 9% of symptomatic Irish cases go on to develop kidney disease or kidney failure.  Babies and young children are most susceptible to kidney failure. 

The FSAI’s top tips for preventing the spread of E. coli infection on farms are:   

  • Wash hands after working or playing on the farm
  • Ensure that the farm’s drinking water supply is safe, particularly if it comes from a private well
  • Do not drink unpasteurised milk or do not allow visitors to drink unpasteurised milk
  • Use organic fertilisers safely
  • Keep animals clean
  • Do not send children who are suffering from diarrhoea or vomiting to their crèche or childminder until the symptoms have gone for 48 hours

The leaflet E. coli – How to Reduce the Risk from Your Farm is freely available here or from the FSAI’s Advice Line 1890 336677.

-ENDS-

Notes for Editors:

  • E. coli bacteria live in the guts of animals and humans. Most types are harmless, but others, such as verotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) can cause serious illness.
  • As E. coli is passed in faeces (dung), people can become infected after:
      - Contact with animals (farm animals or pets)
      - Contact with the farm environment
      - Contact with an infected person
      - Drinking contaminated water
      - Drinking unpasteurised milk
      - Eating contaminated food
  • E. coli infection can cause:
      - Stomach pains
      - Diarrhoea, which can be bloody
      - Kidney failure, especially in young children
  • Babies and young children (under five years old) are particularly at risk of E. coli infection because their immune systems are still developing.
  • The Health Protection Surveillance Centre has produced specific advice for open farms and for the recreational use of farmland.  A copy of this advice can be obtained from www.hpsc.ie