They're Cute, But Baby Chicks Can Harbor Salmonella

May 30, 2012


By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, May 30 (HealthDay News) — Few things are harder for a youngster to resist touching than a cuddly baby chick. But a new U.S. government study has bad news for parents — those adorable little chicks may harbor salmonella bacteria.

The study found that 316 people, primarily young children, from 43 U.S. states had been infected with salmonella after handling young live poultry.

“This was an eight-year investigation into an outbreak of Salmonella Montevideo that was linked primarily to one mail-order hatchery in the U.S.,” said study co-author Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinary epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We were able to work with the hatchery, and after the intervention, the number of human infections declined. This is a success story,” she added.

The study’s findings are published in the May 31 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Salmonella causes more than 42,000 reported infections each year, according to the CDC. But, because many people never report milder infections with the bacteria, the CDC estimates that the actual number of infections may be as much as 29 times higher than that. About 370 people die each year because of salmonella, according to background information in the study.

Children, especially those younger than 5 years, are at greatest risk of salmonella infection. The elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems also have a higher risk of getting sick from salmonella, according to the CDC.

Diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping are common signs of salmonella infection. Most people get better on their own, but some people develop a more serious infection and need to be hospitalized.

Live poultry infected with salmonella generally appear healthy, but can still spread the bacteria to their offspring. About 50 million live poultry (chicks, goslings and ducks) are sold through mail order in the United States each year. These animals can usually be purchased for $5 or less at agricultural feed stores or through the mail.

Barton Behravesh said people who keep chickens in their yards at home can be exposed when collecting eggs or cleaning up the chicken coop. Children in schools that hatch baby chicks as part of their curriculum may also be exposed.

The CDC was alerted to this outbreak in 2005 by the state of Colorado. It had three infections with the same unusual strain of salmonella, called Salmonella Montevideo. All three reported exposure to baby chicks and ducks.

The CDC eventually found a total of 316 people — half of them under 4 years old — who had been infected with this particular strain. Twenty-three percent of those the CDC was able to interview were hospitalized. No deaths were reported.

Seventy-seven percent reported they’d had contact with live young poultry in the week before the illness. The researchers then traced the poultry back to their source, which turned out to be a single mail-order hatchery for most of those infected.

The owners of the hatchery implicated in many of the infections voluntarily replaced old equipment and implemented new cleaning and vaccination procedures, and began testing for salmonella. After initial success, Barton Behravesh said a lapse in the new procedures led to increased salmonella at the hatchery. But, she said, the hatchery is now back on track.

Because this wasn’t the only hatchery linked to salmonella outbreaks in the nation, the CDC recommends that children under 5 not handle live poultry.

Dr. Lorry Rubin, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park, agreed with that recommendation. “The younger the child, the more difficult it is to ensure compliance with hand-washing,” Rubin said. “It’s reasonable to have a prohibition on handling live poultry in children under 5 or 6. Older children and adults should be educated in proper hand-washing hygiene.”

Small turtles are also known to harbor salmonella, and their sale was banned three decades ago in the United States, but some people still have them as pets. In February, the CDC reported on a multistate salmonella outbreak involving turtles in 2010-2011.

Dwarf frogs, iguanas and other reptiles can carry salmonella, too.

“It’s important for parents to be aware of the risks. There is so much education and enrichment that comes from interacting with animals. But animals can carry germs that can make children sick,” said Barton Behravesh.

Both experts said if you or your children do touch animals or reptiles, wash your hands thoroughly after doing so. If you can’t get to a sink, use an alcohol-based sanitizer until you have an opportunity to wash your hands.

More information

Get tips on preventing salmonella infection from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Casey Barton Behravesh, D.V.M., Dr.P.H., veterinary epidemiologist, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Ga.; Lorry Rubin, M.D., director, pediatric infectious diseases, Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; May 31, 2012, New England Journal of Medicine

Last Updated: May 30, 2012

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