Nearly half of herds carry E.coli virus

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The Independent Online

Health experts issued a strong warning yesterday about the dangers to children and the elderly of contracting the deadly E.coli O157 bug from farms, picnics and country walks, after livestock emerged as a major source of infection.

Health experts issued a strong warning yesterday about the dangers to children and the elderly of contracting the deadly E.coli O157 bug from farms, picnics and country walks, after livestock emerged as a major source of infection.

The latest studies have found that cattle and sheep are a much more important source of E.coli O157, the most deadly strain of the bug for humans, than previously believed.

One test found that 44 per cent of English cattle herds have at least one animal carrying the strain. Another survey of abattoirs found that nearly 5 per cent of cattle, nearly 2 per cent of sheep and 0.16 per cent of pigs were carriers.

A "high proportion" of E.coli O157 infections come from contact with farm animals, gardens, or contaminated mud and water, the study found. The public will be advised not to touch livestock, and to wash their hands, clothes and shoes after visiting the countryside and farms. Ramblers and picnickers should carry soap to use outside.

The findings were unveiled at a meeting organised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Scottish executive, the Welsh Assembly and the Department of Health.

George Paterson, the director of FSA Scotland, said: "There remains a serious possibility of outbreaks from food contaminated with E.coli O157. We need to be particularly vigilant for the sake of high-risk groups such as the very young and the elderly."

The national conference follows a series of E.coli O157 outbreaks since the mid-1990s and a steep rise in the incidence of the bug, which scientists have been unable to properly explain.

Public Health Laboratory figures for England and Wales show the incidence has leapt from one reported case in 1982 to 1,084 last year.

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