The growing popularity of hobby farming and home butchering could put more people at risk of a viral disease known as orf, warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency noted that physicians who aren’t familiar with orf could mistake it for cutaneous anthrax or a skin tumor.
Orf, also called contagious ecthyma, results from infection with a parapoxvirus considered endemic among sheep, goats, and certain other animals. Transmitted by contact with infected animals, the infection causes skin lesions — red, swollen eruptions on the fingers, hands, or arms that may weep and form crusts. Some resemble bacterial infections or skin tumors. Usually, symptoms resolve on their own in 4 to 8 weeks, but potential complications include a hypersensitivity reaction called erythema multiforme, scars that eventually heal, or secondary bacterial infections. Immunocompromised individuals may develop severe disease from orf.
A study in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describes 4 recent cases of infection—a woman in Greece who developed symptoms after she punctured her hand on the bone of a recently slaughtered goat, a Massachusetts man who handled a lamb sacrificed for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, another man in Massachusetts who cut his thumb while butchering a lamb for an Easter celebration, and a pregnant woman who cut her hand on a bone while preparing recently butchered lamb in her Virginia home.
The study noted that most orf cases occur in agricultural and food industry workers or in children who’ve visited petting zoos or livestock fairs. But the CDC said the 4 cases in the report highlight the risk of becoming infected while preparing or butchering meat at home.
Orf is widespread among sheep and goats, some of which are raised on small farms for a family’s own consumption. Farmers may process the meat themselves or use a custom processor that doesn’t commercially sell the meat. State or federal inspections in these settings are less frequent than in large processing plants that sell meat to consumers.
“In nonoccupational settings, where safe practices cannot be enforced, injuries can occur while handling animals, thus providing sites for orf inoculation,” the authors wrote. “Persons who handle sheep or goats at home should be counseled to wear nonpermeable gloves, especially when wounds or rash are present.”
The CDC said physicians should consider orf virus a possibility in patients with skin lesions compatible with the infection and a history of processing meat for the family’s use. To avoid giving unnecessary treatment, physicians can call their state health department or the CDC (404 639-4129) for polymerase chain reaction testing to identify the virus.