Wash your hands before eating that dough boy, or risk getting sick at the fair

Posted July 31, 2012, at 1:25 p.m.
Dr. Stephen Sears
Dr. Stephen Sears

Stomach-turning carnival rides aren’t the only thing that can make you sick at the fair this season, state officials reminded the public Tuesday.

Fairgoers who visit the petting zoo or the livestock show risk picking up dangerous bacteria from animals, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears. The health threat lies largely in handling the animals and then digging into a meal without cleaning up first, he said.

“Around the country, there have been lots of outbreaks associated with fairs, petting zoos, people having contact with animals then going and eating things without washing their hands,” Sears said.

Four people at a county fair in Indiana were sickened earlier this month with a new flu virus traced to pigs.

While it’s less common, humans can also infect pigs with the flu, Sears said.

“Influenza can be transmitted from people to pigs,” he said. “They are clearly a host that can accept our viruses.”

Baby chicks, cute as they may be, are also known to carry salmonella, a bacteria than can cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea and in some cases requires hospitalization.

“Any chicken can carry salmonella but baby chicks tend to be handled by small people who tend to have very close contact with them,” Sears said.

A number of different animals, also including cows and goats, can carry bacteria that don’t cause them disease but can make humans sick, he said. Campylobacter and E. coli are two other germs known to crop up at fairs, Sears said.

In a press release Tuesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Department of Agriculture urged fairgoers to take simple steps to stay healthy. Before eating, wash hands with soap and water or use alcohol hand gel to cut the risk of gastrointestinal illness such as salmonella.

“People go directly sometimes from the animal right over to the midway or the food stand and they grab something and they don’t think about washing their hands in between,” Sears said.

Ask the owner for permission before touching an animal, the release said. Clean hands before and after touching an animal to avoid spreading illness from you to the animal and from the critter to you.

Lastly, stay away from the fair if you’re ill to prevent sickening other people or animals, the release said.

“Agricultural fairs are educational and just plain fun and it is important that we do everything we can to make it as safe of an experience as possible, both for the people and the animals,” Beth McEvoy, acting state veterinarian, said in the release.

Maine’s fair season runs through early October, with 26 licensed agricultural fairs statewide.

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