Taranaki's rural communities are being warned to be on alert for illness caused by bacteria carried in the intestines of cattle and other animals which can cause severe gastroenteritis in young children.

Taranaki District Health Board medical o-officer of health Jonathan Jarman says Taranaki has high rates of shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC), also known as verotoxin producing E. coli (VTEC).

"Young children on farms with cattle are at high risk of catching this disease, with nearly half of cases ending up in hospital."

August through to October is the peak season for the diseases, with the main symptoms being watery diarrhoea, blood in the diarrhoea, severe stomach pains and vomiting.

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Other risk factors include drinking unpasteurised milk or untreated water, eating undercooked or contaminated food and being in contact with people who have the infection.

Jonathan says young children with STEC are more likely to get a severe complication called haemolytic uraemic syndrome which can damage kidneys.

"On average we get a child with this complication once a year in Taranaki.

"We've already had one case in April where a very sick child ended up needing further treatment in Auckland," Jonathan says.

He says the main source for these toxin producing bacteria was animal waste, but can also be found in places contaminated with animal waste such as muddy puddles near farm animals or animals drinking troughs, farm clothing and footwear, and in dogs and other farm animals going inside a house.

"Children under 5 living on or visiting farms with cattle and calves are most at risk from STEC illness. Anyone showing signs of the STEC infection should seek advice from their doctor or call Healthline before taking any medication for this illness as some may even make it worse."

Jonathan says one of the best ways to prevent infection is regular hand washing before eating, after helping out on a farm and after touching animals.