The pits … bandicoot faeces found in sand, used in public playgrounds, from the central depot is likely to have caused the outbreak of salmonella cases on the northern beaches between 2007 and 2009.THE mystery source of a salmonella outbreak that forced the closure of Sydney playgrounds and gave dozens of toddlers gastroenteritis may have been solved.
Long-nosed bandicoots pooing in the sandpits may be the likely culprits, health investigators say.
Three children were taken to hospital with severe diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain during the gastro outbreak on the northern beaches between 2007 and 2009. A further 72 people, mostly young children, became ill.
The illness was blamed on the rare bacteria strain, Salmonella enterica Paratyphi B variant Java, found in some sandpits at public playgrounds and outdoor cafes around Pittwater.
But health authorities could not determine the source of the salmonella. There were theories it came from dirty nappies, cockroaches or the faeces of rats, ducks and ibis.
In a paper published last month in the US Centres for Disease Control’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, investigators from NSW Health said children ate the sand carrying the bacteria, which is normally associated with imported ornamental fish.
The investigators found that one central depot that delivers sand to playgrounds was a ”common factor” in all contaminated playgrounds and that the depot was situated in a ”wild bushland setting”.
During tests of faecal and cloacal samples from 261 animals, the investigators found the salmonella strain in ducks, rats, possums and a dog, but by far ”the most were from a marsupial species native to the local area, the long-nosed bandicoot”, the paper said.
”Although sand from the central depot was a common factor in all contaminated playgrounds where case-patients contracted the illness, the infection source for this facility remains unknown,” the paper said. ”It was located in a wild bushland setting, and it is feasible that transmission of the bacterium from local wildlife occurred.”
The authors wrote that their study identified accidental sand ingestion as a ”previously unrecognised pathway for humans acquiring illness caused by S. enterica var. Java.”
This provides further evidence for sandpits to be better examined to protect public health, they wrote.
”Ultimate control of the outbreak might require a strategy that involves altering human behaviour, the environment, and wildlife habitat,” the authors wrote.
A spokesman for NSW Health said all local councils and property owners should manage playground sandpits to restrict animal access where they could.
”It is important that parents and guardians ensure that children do not eat food whilst in playground sandpits and that they wash their hands after playing in sandpits before eating food,” the spokesman said.
NSW Health said the depot mentioned in the paper no longer distributes sand to any playgrounds.
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