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How to enjoy animals at the fair without getting their germs--or giving them yours

Summer is the season for fairs, festivals and family reunions, but before you jump into the barrel of fun, you should take some precautions to keep yourself and your family healthy.

Leah Mehling, 9, pets her 4H horse, Prince, at the Grand Forks Fair on June 22, 2016. This will be Leah's first year competing as a full member of 4H. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)
Leah Mehling, 9, pets her 4H horse, Prince, at the Grand Forks Fair on June 22, 2016. This will be Leah's first year competing as a full member of 4H. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)

Summer is the season for fairs, festivals and family reunions, but before you jump into the barrel of fun, you should take some precautions to keep yourself and your family healthy.

Contact with animals at fairs and other events can pose health risks because diseases such as E. coli and influenza can be passed between humans and animals, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

Salmonella also can be passed between poultry and humans, said Michelle Feist, epidemiologist for the health department.

At special events that bring you into contact with animals, "you could unknowingly ingest (bacteria) that can cause illness," Feist said.

"Children are apt to be handling baby chicks, for example," she said. "Little kids want to be touching things."

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In the presence of animals, you don't have to consume food or drink to pick up potentially harmful bacteria, she said. "You could be walking along and touch a gate or a fence or some other object."

If you then touch your mouth or eyes, you could pick up a "bug."

It's a fact of life: When busy having fun, people sometimes forget to wash their hands before eating, Feist said.

"It's not enough to run your hands under the water. Wash all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, between fingers and in the inner part of your thumbs with soap."

Feist suggests washing for 20 seconds or the time it takes to hum "Happy Birthday" or the "ABCs."

Still, soap and water doesn't always do the trick. Improper food handling sometimes can result in salmonella infection-and nothing takes the fun out of festivities faster than nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, chills and headache.

Harmful bacteria can grow in foods if not properly stored, Feist said. "That is, not kept hot enough or cold enough."

Bacteria also grow more quickly if the outdoor temperature is high. If you store food in a cooler for an extended period of time, and you're unsure if it's safe to eat, throw it out, she said. "Don't take the risk."

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Here are other tips Feist recommends to stay safe while enjoying next-to-nature activities this summer:

 

• Wash your hands often with soap and running water before and after exposure to live animals and their surroundings. If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

• Don't eat or drink while in petting zoos or livestock viewing areas.

• Don't allow children to put anything in their mouths while in animal areas.

• Don't take toys, pacifiers, cups, baby bottles, strollers or similar items into animal viewing areas; these items can pick up germs and become a source of contamination for small children.

• Always provide adult supervision in animal areas for children younger than 5.

• Avoid close contact with any animal that looks or acts ill.

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• If you are ill, avoid close contact with animals and viewing animals in enclosed spaces, such as barns.

• If you are bringing or preparing your own food to a reunion or other special event, don't let food sit out for more than two hours-or one hour if the temperature is over 90 degrees. Keep perishable food items in a cooler or insulated bag.

• Wear insect repellent to keep mosquitos, ticks and other bugs away when outdoors.

 

Anyone at high risk of serious complications from infectious diseases such as influenza or E. coli may consider avoiding contact with live animals at the fair, Feist said. High-risk individuals can include small children, pregnant women, those 65 or older, or anyone who has long-term health conditions.

People with respiratory conditions should consider avoiding enclosed spaces with livestock, such as barns and indoor arenas, she said.

If you become ill after contact with livestock or other animals, contact your health care provider and tell her about the animal contact.

For more information, visit the Division of Disease Control website at www.ndhealth.gov/disease/ or call (701) 328-2378.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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