Petting farm E.coli bug "could have been avoided"

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s largest outbreak of a dangerous strain of E.coli at an open farm last year could have been avoided if visitors had been kept away from animal feces, a report said on Tuesday.

The outbreak, which affected 93 people mostly children, was made worse by the slow reaction of health authorities before the petting farm in Surrey was closed, the investigation found.

Only 33 people would have fallen victim to the infection had authorities acted sooner, it said.

Eight of the children infected required dialysis and some have been left with permanent kidney damage. At one point during the outbreak last August and September victims were occupying all the children’s acute renal support services in London.

A number of families of affected children are preparing to take legal action against the farm.

In a 250-page report, the investigation said an outbreak control team of officials from local councils, medical authorities and the Health Protection Agency (HPA) had convened “exceptionally late.”

It said there had been an unacceptable delay in introducing strict control measures at Godstone Farm.

It made 43 recommendations but said it did not want to ban petting farms. It said there should be a code of practice to ensure farms kept visitors away from animal fecal matter.

In addition it said the public should be educated about the dangers of E.coli O157 and how its risks could be minimized by careful handwashing, particularly for young children.

Cases of E.coli O157 are rare, but its consequences -- including bloody diarrhea and kidney failure -- are severe and can be fatal, especially for the very young and very old.

The bacterium lives in the guts of ruminant farm animals such as cattle, sheep and goats and is transmitted through contact with their feces. Thorough handwashing is essential to prevent the bug entering the human digestive system.

“This outbreak could very likely have been avoided if more attention had been given to preventing visitors being exposed to animal fecal matter,” said Professor George Griffin, who led the investigation.

“Once it had started, there is no doubt that even with prompt action this would have been a big outbreak.

“Nevertheless there was a lack of public health leadership by the Health Protection Agency and a missed opportunity to exercise decisive public health action and thereby restrict the size of the outbreak.”

Godstone Farm, which has since reopened, attracts more than 200,000 visitors annually.

Three cases of suspected E.coli linked to the farm had been reported by the Friday before the late August bank holiday.

But it took a further week before the farm voluntarily closed its main barn, containing sheep, goats and pigs, where children had been encouraged to play with lambs.

An outbreak control team did not meet until the following Monday and the farm did not close for another week.

There were no new infections after the main barn was closed. Investigators later found 23 of the 28 animals were infected with E.coli.

The infection incubates for a number of days before symptoms appear. Had the barn been shut the Friday before the bank holiday, there would have only been 33 cases, a third of the final total, the investigation team said.

Godstone Farm owner Jackie Flaherty said the outbreak had been dreadful and hoped all the children affected would make a full recovery.

Editing by Steve Addison