Child at Starship highlights need for caution around farm animals

Friday October 5, 2012

‚ÄčA three year old Canterbury girl is recovering in Starship Hospital, in Auckland, after contracting Verocytotoxin producing Escherichia coli (VTEC) while feeding a lamb.

The girl contracted the disease from unpasteurised milk in a bottle she was feeding to the lamb. The bacteria from the unpasteurised milk caused the girl to have significant kidney failure, resulting in intensive medical care.

Dr Alistair Humphrey, Canterbury Medical Officer of Health, says the girl is recovering well but is still expected to stay at Starship for next few days.

"Touching farm animals can be lethal.  VTEC is one of several diseases carried by healthy animals.  Up to 10 percent of children infected with VTEC develop haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), and one third of those go on to develop serious complications, such as renal failure, which can require lifelong dialysis or kidney transplantation. Up to a fifth of children with HUS die," Dr Humphrey says.

"It is not clear in this case whether the child contracted VTEC E. coli as a result of drinking unpasteurised milk, or by simply touching the lamb. Fortunately, in this case the little girl is recovering."

Dr Humphrey says it is not uncommon for children to contract VTEC in spring and says Community and Public Health are currently investigating two more possible cases.

"Spring is the time of year when stomach bugs are unfortunately most prevalent in Canterbury. Spring is a busy time on farms and in meat works and people are in close contact with animals. Often this includes workers or visitors who don't usually deal with animals.

"Children are most at risk as they are more difficult to get into the habit of washing their hands after feeding farm animals and need to be reminded to wash their hands regularly.

Dr Humphrey says to prevent the spread of VTEC and other infections it is important people only drink pasteurised milk and do not put their hands in their mouth after feeding or touching farm animals.

"This requires parents to be very vigilant when young children are around farm animals." 

The most important safety precautions to prevent infections on the farm are:

  • Not drinking raw milk
  • Thorough hand washing after contact with animals and animal faeces and after toileting
  • Ensuring water supplies are protected from contamination.

The illness usually begins with diarrhoea, which may contain blood after 2-3 days. Anyone with diarrhoea should consult their General Practice team.  

Page last reviewed: 24 July 2013