A link between sick calves and rising cases of a potentially fatal childhood disease has been confirmed by a Taranaki medical student during her summer break.
Research carried out by Claire Richardson has shown that contact with young calves is a major risk factor for a type of E.coli bacteria linked to bloody diarrhea and other symptoms in humans.
“The thing that’s striking about it is that in Taranaki most of the 67 cases over the last 10 years were children aged between one and four who had been in contact with farm animals,” said Richardson, whose research findings were published on Wednesday in the New Zealand Public Health Surveillance Report.
Now farming families are being warned to keep children away from sick cattle to avoid contracting Verotoxin Eshcerichia coli (VTEC).
The disease, which was first seen in New Zealand in 1993, has been increasing over the past decade and Taranaki has one of the highest rates in New Zealand, Taranaki medical officer of health, Dr Jonathan Jarman, said.
The majority of cases in Taranaki happened in winter and spring, which coincides with calving season. Nearly half of all cases were admitted to hospital and five required dialysis and treatment in Starship Hospital, Auckland, after developing kidney complications.
“We want to turn the curve on this disease. Our aim is to reduce the number of farm kids catching VTEC and developing complications which often require dialysis,” Jarman said.
It was important parents kept youngsters away from scouring calves and made sure children washed their hands after helping on the farm or touching animals, he added. The Taranaki District Health Board will have a public information campaign in place before the next calving season and will also be educating doctors around the region on diagnosing and treating the disease.
It is also planning to work with the farming community to reduce the VTEC infection rate in farm animals.
Richardson, whose family farms at Tataraimaka, is in her fourth year studying medicine through Otago University.
She said she was surprised how little known the disease was, even though there were more cases of VTEC than leptospirosis.
“They asked me to go home and talk to people and see if people knew about VTEC. Talking to different family friends, all farming related people, the main comment they had was that VTEC was a Honda car transmission.
“A few people had heard of it but they didn’t really know about it.”
The message was particularly important to her because she had many cousins and friends who lived on farms and had young children, she said.
“VTEC in Taranaki is more common than leptosporosis, but everyone knows about lepto, so that’s the scary point – people know about these other bugs, it would be good to know about this as well.”
VTEC can be carried by animals who show no symptoms and can also be present in sheep and goats. Other areas with higher-than-average numbers were Northland, Waikato, and South Canterbury.
By: Catherine Groenestein