Salmonella Outbreak Traced to Pet Turtles
Pet turtles are spreading potentially life-threatening salmonella bacteria in an outbreak of the illness that has sickened more than 100 people across the United States, according to a new report from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
The AVMA said the current outbreak of salmonella, which began in 2007, has sickened 107 people in 34 states, with about one-third of those affected requiring hospitalization for the illness. So far, there have been no deaths linked to salmonella spread by turtles kept as pets, officials said.
Salmonella is a common form of bacteria that is most often detected in contaminated foods. Recent outbreaks of the bacteria have been reported in peanuts, spinach, and hamburger meat.
While most healthy people infected with salmonella develop only mild to moderate diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and other symptoms, the infection can lead to fatal food poisoning. The frail and elderly, young children, and consumers with weakened immune systems are at greatest risks of serious health complications from salmonella poisoning. An estimated 76 million Americans suffer some form of food poisoning each year, including many cases linked to salmonella.
According to the AVMA report, most of those sickened in the current salmonella outbreak linked to pet turtles had no idea their pets were carrying the bacteria. Some of those sickened are children who swam with their pet turtles in backyard swimming pools.
Ban on Turtles Often Ignored
A ban on the sale of pet turtles less than about four inches in diameter was passed in 1975, but more than two million of the reptiles were sold illegally in 2006, according to an Associated Press report.
“It’s very easy to think of turtles as being a very gentle and nice pet,” said Julie Harris, a scientist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the report’s lead author.
Officials suspect the salmonella outbreak was caused by turtle feces carrying the bacteria found on the shells of some turtles that were then shipped in containers with other turtles, allowing the bacteria to quickly spread.
The turtles involved in the salmonella outbreak were sold in pet stores, flea markets, and on-line, officials said. The Food and Drug Administration is now investigating the outbreak and has contacted retailers to warn of the risks of salmonella on turtles sold as pets.
North Carolina Cases Prompted Investigation
The investigation into the salmonella risks in pet turtles began in September 2007 when a North Carolina teen and a friend contracted serious salmonella infections after swimming in a backyard pool with two pet turtles. The girls both suffered from bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and other symptoms and one victim had to be hospitalized for eight days, according to the AP report.
The same strain of bacteria that sickened those two girls was later traced to three other illnesses of North Carolina children, officials said. Officials later uncovered even more cases, prompting the call of an outbreak.
By January 2008, health officials had identified illnesses caused by the same strain of salmonella across the United States, including 12 people in California, 10 each in Pennsylvania and Texas, and nine in Illinois, the AP reports.
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