Down on the farm with the kids

Farms offer a great opportunity for young children – a sense of freedom, an appreciation of where their food comes from, a chance to experience new things, and to pet or feed animals. But, animals carry diseases and toddlers are generally bad at hygiene! So here’s what you need to know when you next visit the farm!

Saying hi to the pigs

The farms most children are exposed to are “open farms”, farms designed with kids in mind – often not working farms but more of a home to farm animals, and often with soft play, cafe and playground thrown in too. Then there are working farms which open their doors to the public for special events, for example lambing. And, of course, there are some young children who are lucky enough to live on farms!

Following a large E. coli outbreak on a farm in 2009 (93 people were infected, 27 hospitalised and eight required dialysis), some experts advised that children under five shouldn’t have direct contact with animals on farms. However, the general consensus was the best way to avoid infections from farms was to improve the knowledge of both farm owners and the general public. How much do you know about farms and infections? Here’s a run-down:

E. coli

E. coli is a diverse group of bacteria, but the ones we are concerned with on farms are a group called enterohaemorragic E. coli (the names given are very confusing, you might also see it referred to as STEC or VTEC which means almost the same thing). We get around 1,000 cases of E. coli O157 each year (the most common type of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli), though not all linked to farms.

So why are we worried about E. coli in particular? Well, while we don’t get a large number of cases, infection in young children can be really serious. Children between the age of one and five are at increased risk of a complication called haemolytic uraemic syndrome, where a toxin produced by E. coli can damage kidneys. This syndrome requires hospitalisation, may require dialysis, and in some cases results in permanent kidney damage or (rarely) death.

The risks are not high as numbers are thankfully small, but the consequences of infection can be life changing. So, it’s worth knowing how to avoid it.

E. coli O157 is found in the guts of ruminants: cows, sheep, goats, deer etc. While there is a risk on farms, the largest outbreak in England to date was linked to raw leeks and potatoes (probably from contaminated soil), so we need to put the risks into perspective. One of the issues on open farms is that they appeal to the age group who are most at risk of complications and least likely to practice good hygiene.

Here are some things to be aware of:

  • E. coli is a hardy bug and can survive for a long time in the environment. This means it can be present in soil, mud, on gate posts or in water.
  • Hand gels and wipes may not be effective in removing E. coli from dirty hands. Dirt on hands can stop them working effectively, and so it’s always best to use soap and water if at all possible.
  • Washing hands is key: before eating and after contact with animals or their environment. Any farm open to the public should have lots of hand washing facilities.
  • Eating or drinking, touching your face, sucking fingers or thumbs, kissing or licking animals all should be avoided if at all possible while walking around the animal areas (my daughter sucks her fingers, I understand how difficult this is!)
  • Shoes, boots and buggies can transfer infection from the farm into your car or home, so should be washed if possible.
  • As well as farms, events where animals are present, such as county fairs or lambing events at other venues may be a risk.

Public Health England, Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has produced guidance for the public, and Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) have produced resources for farmers and for teachers taking students to farms.

Other infection risks

E. coli isn’t the only infection risk on farms, animals may also carry diseases such as Salmonella, Cryptosporidium, or Toxoplasma. The precautions we take to avoid E. coli should also help us avoid these infections too. Pregnant women are also at risk on farms, and I’ve covered that here.


What do I do?

Well…I take my kids to farm, and there are two reasons for that. One, I think it offers a good learning opportunity for them, and two, because we often meet friends there, which is important to me as well as the kids. I do have a couple of rules though. Since Boybug has become mobile I haven’t taken the kids by myself. With both of them being so young (3 and 19 months), I just don’t feel I can keep a close enough eye on both of them with just me there. I also wouldn’t let either of them go to a farm without me. If there’s a preschool trip for example, we all go or no one goes. Girlbug’s preschool is great, but I would want to be there to supervise hand washing, animal contact etc.

When we’re at farms, I try to steer the kids away from petting animals, though don’t actively stop them. We wash hands regularly with soap and water. Even if they’ve only been in the soft play, they wash their hands before eating. And really wash their hands – no gels or wipes. Girlbug sucks her fingers, so I follow her around the farm shouting “fingers!” at regular intervals. And shoes get taken off before we’re in the house, and cleaned thoroughly. Likewise, if we have the buggy, I’m wary of the potential for the wheels to bring dirt into the house.

My attitude to farms is probably strongly linked to the work that I have been involved in, I can’t help but see the risk. That being said, the risk is not high and needs to be seen in balance with the great opportunities farms can provide. As I have been reminded on Facebook recently, many kids live a care-free existence in close proximity to these types of animals and never suffer any ill health from them. However, there is a risk there, and the best way to avoid it is to be aware!

Have fun on the farm, but wash your hands!