Preventing zoonoses

Zoonoses are common and the diseases they cause can be serious. Zoonoses are diseases that are transmissable between animals and people. Caring for the health of animals is the first important step in preventing zoonoses. Practising good personal hygiene, wearing protective clothing and undertaking vaccination where appropriate, can minimise the risk of some animal-borne diseases affecting people.

People at risk

Some people are more susceptible to disease than others. Most can overcome exposure to diseases provided they are healthy and their immune system is functional. Higher risk groups include people on immuno-suppressive treatments, diabetics, alcoholics, HIV-infected people and pregnant women.

Specific occupational groups may also be at higher risk of zoonotic infections. Meatworkers, farmers, wildlife workers and veterinarians, who have close contact with animals, may have increased exposure to diseases like Q fever and leptospirosis. Whereas wild pig shooters may come into contact with pigs infected with brucellosis. Some diseases such as salmonellosis can be contracted from eating foods that aren't cooked properly and un-pasteurised dairy products may cause listeriosis. Owning pets can be rewarding, however, their close proximity to people, especially children, can result in the spread of diseases.

Precautions

Anyone working with or handling animals should take precautions to minimise the risk of infection. Because different zoonotic diseases behave differently, avoiding specific infections requires an individual approach. A few straight forward practices can provide a high level of general protection.

Precautions include:

  • Good personal hygiene: Wash hands after handling animals and before preparing or eating food or smoking cigarettes. Unwashed hands should not be put in the mouth, including someone else's mouth.

  • Hygienic food preparation: Food-borne diseases can be largely avoided through correct processing and hygienic food preparation.

  • Vaccination for people: Vaccines are available for some zoonoses and they should be made use of. Abattoir workers, farmers and vets should seek advice on Q fever vaccination. To protect against Australian bat lyssavirius, bat carers are advised to have a rabies vaccination.

  • Personal protection: Gloves, boots and aprons or overalls should be worn when handling animals. Cover cuts and scratches with waterproof plasters. For some diseases that may be fatal to people, e.g. Hendra virus, full protective clothing is essential including respiratory protection.

  • Maintain animal health: Farm biosecurity and animal health programs, including the use of vaccines, play an important role in reducing the risk of some zoonotic diseases. Pet owners should make sure their animals are healthy and regularly wormed; private veterinarians can provide advice on treatments.

  • Care when pregnant: To reduce the risk of toxoplasmosis, pregnant women should not empty cat litter boxes and or handle pregnant ewes.

  • Care when immuno-suppressed: People with depressed immunity whether due to illness or medical treatments, should avoid all exposure to zoonotic diseases.

  • Suspect and stray animals: Animals that appear ill, or carry skin infections should not be handled without taking precautions. It is also wise to avoid handling stray animals.

  • Control of pest animals: Animals such as rats or feral pigs can carry zoonotic diseases and control programs will reduce the likelihood of transmission to people.

Last updated 27 September 2012