Four children were hospitalised following an outbreak of E.coli after a lambing event at a popular farm shop.
Health bosses are investigating a total of 11 cases of the O157 infection in nine children and two adults, who had been to lambing live at Huntley’s Country Stores in Samlesbury, near Preston.
All of the children affected are under 10 years old. Three youngsters remain in hospital suffering from complications arising from the gastrointestinal illness – the fourth is now recovering at home. An investigation is under way and all contact between animals and the public at the premises has now ceased.
Health chiefs have labelled the number of cases as “concerning”.
Today bosses at Huntley’s said they are “devastated” at the outbreak and said they are working to “pinpoint” the source.
Managing director Harry Wilson added: “First and foremost can I say all our thoughts at this moment in time centre around the affected children and we wish them a speedy and full recovery.
“Huntley’s management is distraught that this outbreak took place during our extremely popular Lambing Live event.
“Witnessing the birth of baby lambs is a special and rare moment for both children and adults from non-farming backgrounds.
“It is therefore unfortunate that this outbreak has happened at such a magical event which ought to leave children with good lifelong memories.
“We are working with the environmental officers to pinpoint the source of the outbreak.”
It is believed the outbreak began before Easter. Anyone who visited the lambing event between March 29 and April 24 and is unwell is advised to seek medical advice.
Meanwhile the National Farmers’ Union said it understands Huntley’s did carry health warnings and provided washing stations for visitors, with members of staff to supervise.
NFU Lancashire county adviser Adam Briggs added: “Thankfully, outbreaks of this nature are extremely rare and people visiting farms can be confident that providing they follow strict hygiene rules, such as washing hands thoroughly after touching animals, the dangers remain low.”
Dr Ken Lamden, consultant in health protection from the Cumbria and Lancashire Public Health England Centre, said: “Investigations are still ongoing and all public health measures have been put in place.
“The owners are co-operating fully and we are working closely with them and with colleagues across health and local authorities.”
The symptoms of E.coli O157 include bloody diarrhoea, which can be serious, or milder forms of the infection which are usually self-limiting and clear within seven days.
Dr Lamden added: “The best protection against E.coli O157 and most infections is thorough hand-washing. “This is particularly important after contact with animals, after going to the toilet, after handling raw meat products and always before eating.
“This incident is an important reminder for parents to follow strict hand-washing with their families when visiting petting farms or handling animals. Although many parents may carry alcohol gels with them, this should be an addition to hand washing with soap and water and not a substitute.”
Public Health England is working with the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency and Environmental Health Officers from across Lancashire to investigate the outbreak.
Dr Lamden added: “Ahead of the May Bank Holiday weekend, we urge families to enjoy their farm visits safely by ensuring good hand hygiene after touching farm animals or their surroundings.
“Outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness associated with contact with farm animals peak in the spring and summer as this coincides with schools holidays when visits to petting farms tend to be more popular, although outbreaks can occur at other times.
“We wouldn’t wish to discourage farm visits, but people need to remember that a range of infections can be passed on through contact with animals unless care is taken to avoid them.
“It is very important for parents and children to make full use of the washing facilities that are provided at open farms.
“They should wash their hands thoroughly after contact with the animals, before eating and before putting fingers near their mouths.”