Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 13:34 UK

E.coli alert affects fourth farm

World of Country Life sign
The farm in Devon has been shut as a precautionary measure

The owner of a farm attraction with possible links to an E.coli incident, has claimed the risk of infection has been "blown out of proportion".

The World of Country Life in Exmouth, Devon closed its petting farm and deer ride on Friday on the advice of the Health Protection Agency (HPA).

Three children who visited the farm while on holiday in Devon last month have the E.coli O157 infection.

Nigel Lee said tests will be carried out on his animals on Monday.

The farm has not been confirmed as the source, but Mr Lee said he was happy to close the two areas "as a precaution" while the HPA investigate.

Under-five 'ban'

An HPA spokesperson said the three children are believed to be "recovering well" from the E.coli infection.

The World of Country Life is the fourth farm to be closed or partially closed in recent days and an expert in microbiology is urging parents not to allow under-fives to touch animals at petting farms.

Professor Hugh Pennington, who has previously led inquiries into E.coli outbreaks in the UK, said not only were under-five the most likely to touch animals, but that age group was "the most difficult part of the population to get to wash their hands".

But the Department of Health said it was was not changing its guidelines in the light of the professor's comments.

A DoH spokesperson the key was good hand hygiene.

"Direct contact is not what presents the risk, it's what happens afterwards," the spokesperson said.

Mr Lee said, as a father himself, he would always advise that children's hands were cleaned after touching animals.

"There has been a risk for some time and people have known that, but I just think it's being blown out of all proportion in the last few weeks, which is a shame."

Forty-nine cases of E.coli have been linked to Godstone Farm in Surrey.

The farm has closed voluntarily and the local authority, HPA and partners are conducting a full investigation
Health Protection Agency statement

Its sister farm, Horton Park Children's Farm in Epsom, has also shut amid hygiene concerns.

Four people became infected after visiting White Post Farm at Farnsfield, Nottinghamshire, though no direct link has been made.

The World of Country Life describes itself as an amusement park with an animal farm.

As well as lamb and calf-feeding opportunities for visitors, the attraction also has a safari deer train.

The rest of the attraction, including the museum and play areas, have remained open, but Mr Lee said the partial closure could adversely affect his business.

Dr Deidre Lewis, from the HPA, said that the agency heard about the first case on 25 August and that it was not until this week that it heard, through other agency channels, about the other two cases.

In a statement, the HPA said it had advised the precautionary closure acting on information that potentially linked the farm with three individuals with confirmed E.coli O157 infection.

HPA apology

The agency said there are many potential sources of E.coli and only about 1 in 50 of all cases are associated with outbreaks linked to petting farms.

Earlier in the week, the HPA apologised for delays in its handling of the outbreak at Godstone Farm and announced that an external investigation would be carried out.

Dr Deidre Lewis, from the HPA, says the closure is a precautionary measure

Justin McCracken, the agency's chief executive, also phoned parents of the children most seriously affected to apologise.

Two-year-old twin boys, Todd and Aaron Furnell, were among those admitted to hospital.

The youngsters, from Kent, suffered acute kidney failure following the E.coli outbreak at Godstone Farm, which was closed on Saturday.

The HPA said the first case came to light on 27 August but it later emerged that the agency had received a report of two cases in the previous week.

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