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Health chiefs criticised over farm E.coli outbreak

By Malcolm Boughen

Updated on 15 June 2010

An inquiry into the outbreak of E.coli at a petting farm near Redhill, in Surrey, finds the farm guilty of inadequate risk management and calls for new controls. But as Tom Clarke notes, there will no bans on petting zoos and farms.

Godstone Farm (Credit: Getty)

A total of 93 people were infected with the potentially-fatal O157 strain of the bug during the outbreak at Godstone Farm, Redhill, in August and September last year. Of those, 76 were children aged under 10 and 17 developed serious kidney problems.

The independent inquiry, commissioned by the Health Protection Agency and carried out by Professor George Griffin from St George's, University of London, makes 43 recommendations, but does not call for a ban on petting zoos or farms.

It says that the outbreak was most likely caused by infected animals. 33 animals were found to be infected - 27 of them in the main barn of the farm and 25 of them goats, sheep and cows.

All three Shetland ponies tested were also infected.

But positive tests were also recorded from bark chipping on a bridge and tower in the farm's adventure playground, straw bedding, dust from a metal railing from the pig pen in the barn and from a railing around the goats in the barn.

The inquiry found that risk assessment carried out by the farm was inadequate - relying on visitors to wash their hands, rather than restricting their contact with the animals and, particularly, their faeces. Children were allowed to climb into pens and buggies and wheelchairs were pushed through areas containing faeces.

"This outbreak could very likely have been avoided if more attention had been given to visitors being exposed to animal faecal matter," said Prof Griffin.

"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."

No bans on petting zoos and a call for common sense
One of the big mysteries was how so many people got infected. Now we know that rather than one specific source – the sandpit and cafe were originally in the frame – the outbreak was likely caused by the fact so many of the farms animals were infected, writes science correspondent Tom Clarke.

33 animals were infected in total. In the barn – where children were allowed to stroke - 27 animals were infected with the deadly strain of the normally harmless E.coli bug.

The report finds the farm's risk assemssment was flawed – relying on the public to opt wash hands. It also finds that in future risk assement should be based on preventing contact between the public and animal faeces – not just animals themselves.

Traces of E.coli were found on railings in the barn but also on wood chips in the farm's adventure playground.

Criticism also falls on the Health Protection Agency. It took nine days to close the farm after the first cases of E.coli were reported. The report makes 43 recommendations but pleads for common sense. There will be no bans on petting zoos and farms and no new licensing requirements.

The HPA said initially that the first case of ecoli had come to light on 27 August last year, but investigations revealed that two cases were reported in the previous week.

The farm, which attracts up to 2,000 visitors a week, was not closed to visitors until 12 September.

Justin McCracken, chief executive of the Health Protection Agency, welcomed the report and pledged to act immediately on all of its recommendations.

"The report makes clear that many factors contributed to this incident, including the fact that the HPA should have acted more quickly," he said.

"HPA responds effectively to thousands of such outbreaks and incidents each year but of course is very sorry for its part in what happened at Godstone.

"I am determined that the HPA will work with the other bodies to prevent a similar situation developing in future."

The HPA said that action had already been taken since the outbreak, with rules changed to ensure that some symptoms of the O157 strain of E.coli are now notifiable, in the same way as smallpox and measles.

Some of the families affected by the outbreak are planning to launch a group legal action.

Jill Greenfield - a partner in the law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse, which is co-ordinating the action - said that this was the largest outbreak of its kind at an open farm in Britain.

"From the evidence in the report, it does appear that at every possible level there were fundamental failings in the handling of the outbreak. Such failings are simply unacceptable," she added.

"Many of the children that I am representing suffered significant pain and distress and continue to require medical treatment. We will not know for many years whether or not they will require further dialysis and/or kidney transplants."

Tracey Mock, the mother of twins Aaron and Todd Furnell who contracted E.coli after visiting the farm last September, said the outbreak continued to affect their lives.

Three-year-old Aaron suffered acute kidney failure and still needs tests at a London hospital every six weeks. 

"He could lead a relatively normal life or he could require assistance, at the moment we don't know," Ms Mock said.

"They're saying to me that adolescence and puberty will be the time when we find out what's going to happen so we're going to have the uncertainty throughout his entire life that he could need dialysis or a kidney transplant."

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