The months of August and September are the height of the fair season in the northeast and there are few who are not drawn to the sights and sounds of these annual events. The exhibits and the live performances are irresistible to kids of all ages. High on the list of things to see are the animal exhibits where farmers and other livestock enthusiasts compete. The animals are groomed to perfection — shampooed, clipped and combed to make the best possible impression to the judge. As perfect as things appear, problems can be lurking just below the surface. These animals can be harboring organisms which can cause disease.
There is an unmistakable bond between humans and animals which is so often expressed in the impulse to pet any animal on display. Frequently this expression of affection is taken another step where a kiss is planted on the top of a calf’s head. When children do these things it is the parents’ responsibility to sit the child down and quietly explain this is not a good idea because of the possibility the animal may be carrying a bug which might make the child sick. In an ideal world the children attending a fair will have been carefully prepped as to the dos and don’ts associated with fair attendance.
All well managed fairs will have wash stations placed at convenient intervals around the fairgrounds and especially where animal displays are situated. These wash areas should be designed to be child friendly as to height with prominent signage so their location can be easily found. The time interval devoted to hand washing should be carefully monitored to ensure it is not a lick and a promise affair. To date public health officials have found nothing superior to soap and water for eliminating nasty bugs. Sanitary wipes are okay but good old fashioned soap and water beats them every time. Clinical trials in human hospitals have reinforced this idea. In arranging the lay-out of animal displays careful consideration should be given to placement of food vendors so a reasonable distance exists between the two. Washing hands before eating at a fair is a must.
Signage should be well arranged in animal barns alerting fairgoers about the possible risks of animal handling. They should not be designed to frighten fairgoers but rather be informative and educational in nature. As the percentage of the total population in the U.S. associated with farming continues to decline, it follows that most fairgoers will have very little knowledge about farm animal health and behavior. This being the case fair management has an important role to play in ensuring fairgoers are made fully aware of the possible risks associated with animal contact. Animal caretakers make every effort to keep the area in which their animals are confined kept as clean as possible. Despite their best efforts the animals have absolutely no regard for the cleanliness of their area and it is fecal matter that is the main threat to the health of fairgoers. Unapparent traces of fecal matter can be found almost anywhere in an animal exhibit barn providing an excellent source of infection to those who touch such objects. Not all fecal matter contains pathogens but it all contains bacteria.
A point which has surfaced in some articles is the issue of pushing strollers though the barns. It is a guarantee that on such a trip fecal material will be picked up on the wheels and taken home to contaminate whatever surfaces those wheels come in contact with. The message is to clean the wheels before packing up and going home. Every cattle barn has a water supply where cattle are washed which very likely could be used to do the job. The trick now becomes one of getting out of the area without recontamination.
Animals being shown at a fair are subjected to conditions quite different than those they are accustomed to in their home environment and this leads to stress. Stress may cause them to shed more pathogens than they would at home. This stress factor affects all animals which may lead to cross contamination between animals from different farms. It is not uncommon for animals returning from a fair to break with some form of illness most often respiratory in nature. Younger animals may be more apt to be infected with pathogenic strains of E. coli and strains of Salmonella with the incidence of such shedding highest in the summer and fall.
One of the favorite displays at many fairs is one in which baby chicks are being hatched. There are few attractions drawing larger crowds than this one. Even though they may present as healthy they may be harboring a potent pathogen such as Salmonella.
Certain groups may be more at risk than others while enjoying a day at the fair. Children five years old and younger, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible.
Of the millions of fairgoers every year the number encountering problems is very small but it is important to be aware of potential problems and have a plan set to avoid them.