90% of farmers unaware of risk of disease

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Nine out of 10 farmers are unaware that healthy animals can be a source of infection to themselves and to their family.

More than half do not realise that disease can be contracted from sick poultry or pets.

A survey to determine farmers’ knowledge of the risk of spread of infection, published in the journal Epidemiology and Infection, found younger farmers (under 45) were more likely than older farmers to know what a zoonosis is: that it is possible to catch an infection from healthy animals, sick poultry or pets.

Epi-Insight, an online publication from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) which picked up on the study, says of all human pathogens (virus, bacterium, prion or fungus) 60% are zoonotic, meaning they are naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans.

Zoonoses are transmitted by ingestion, bite, scratch, inhalation or skin contact. Indirect transmission can take place through contact with contaminated clothing or shoes, animal bedding, flooring, barriers and other environmental surfaces.

“Other members of farming households, even if not working on the farm, may also be at higher risk through direct and indirect contact with animals,” the report says.

Farmers’ knowledge of the risk to pregnant women of infection from birthing animals was high (88%). Older farmers (over 45) were more likely to identify aborting animals as a source of infection.

The vast majority of farmers (93%) reported washing their hands before eating or smoking while on the farm. A third of respondents reported that they did not wear a boilersuit or wet gear while working.

Of those who did, almost a quarter did not remove it on entering the home. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends that farm work clothes or footwear are not worn in the home because they can spread E. coli.

Almost three-quarters of farmers reported sourcing their drinking water from a private well.

Of these, 62% tested their water less frequently than once a year.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that 25% of groundwater supplies in Ireland are contaminated with faecal coliforms. The EPA recommends annual testing of private well water for bacterial contamination.

Approximately 40% of dairy farmers surveyed drank unpasteurised milk once a week or more “indicating that dairy farmers continue to potentially expose themselves, and their families, unnecessarily to pathogenic organisms in their milk”.

Unpasteurised (raw) milk can carry harmful bacteria such as campylobacter, listeria, salmonella, verotoxigenic E. coli.

Writing in Epi-Insight, Sarah Doyle and Marrita Mahon of HSE South East said the results of the survey “illustrate the need for further education, in plain language, to increase the awareness of potential biohazards on farms, and practical measures that can be taken to mitigate the risk of zoonotic infection”.

“The fact that most farmers accessed information on diseases on the farm from multiple sources, suggests that a multi-faceted, One Health approach to infectious disease prevention in the farming community is merited,” they said.

One Health is essentially a unified human and veterinary approach to combat zoonotic diseases.

The survey involved 1,044 farmers.

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