Parents taking their kids to the Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo this week might want to think twice before letting them walk around the livestock barn carrying cotton candy.
And parents definitely should make sure everyone washes their hands or uses hand sanitizer after being around animals at the fair or touching anything in the livestock barns, health officials said.
"While pets and livestock offer many benefits, they carry germs that can make people sick, even if the animals are healthy," said Dr. Maxine Hayes, the state's health officer.
Public health officials across the country are warning fairgoers about the hazards of diseases people can pick up from animals in the wake of an outbreak of a swine flu variant that has sickened 225 people this year -- mostly since July, and mostly people who came into direct contact with animals.
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This year's swine flu isn't the same as the H1N1 virus that swept across the United States in 2009. Instead, it's a variant of the H3N2 swine flu strain, which so far hasn't mutated to allow for rampant human-to-human transmission, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Swine flu viruses don't normally jump from pigs to humans, but sporadic human infections, such as the H3N2 cases this summer, do happen, and the number of people who have contracted the H3N2 variant was great enough to prompt federal, state and local health officials to put out health advisories about how to safely enjoy fairs and rodeos.
No cases of the H3N2 variant have been reported in Washington state -- the largest outbreaks have been in the Midwestern states of Indiana and Ohio -- but state health officials are reminding fairgoers that they can pick up other types of bugs from livestock.
Poultry, for example, can carry the Salmonella bacteria on their bodies, even if they look healthy and clean, the state Department of Health advised.
The E. coli bacteria typically makes people sick when they consume contaminated foods or liquids, prompting Dr. Amy Person, the health officer for Benton and Franklin counties, to warn against carrying fair food into animal barns.
"Food and farm animals don't mix," Person said.
E. coli infection also can happen after touching an infected animal or its waste, which can be present on animal cages, stalls or other things people might inadvertently touch in a barn.
"The main risk is especially with kids if they're walking around. You have to watch the littler kids because they do more hand-to-mouth behavior," Person said. "Good hand-washing will prevent a lot of that."
Person also encouraged fairgoers to be cautious about consuming unpasteurized milk, which can contain bacteria that causes gastrointestinal illnesses, and to avoid contact with animals that have runny eyes or runny noses indicating they might be sick.
She said hand sanitizers that are at least 50 percent alcohol also can help prevent the spread of most illnesses people might pick up at the fair, but hand washing with soap and water is better.
The Benton Franklin Health District inspects the fairgrounds to make sure signs are posted about good hand hygiene and that there are adequate hand-washing stations, Person said.
"Hand washing really is the biggest thing," she said.
The fair opens Tuesday.
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org