A multistate outbreak of human Salmonella infections linked to contact with turtles has prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a warning reminding people about the dangers associated with keeping turtles as pets.
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Between March and August, 37 people across 13 states have been infected with a strain of Salmonella Agbeni, with 16 requiring hospitalization. Twelve of the infected individuals were children aged 5 years or younger.
Experts have linked the infections to contact with turtles or their environment after fifteen (45%) of the people reported having touched turtles or been exposed to their environments in the week before they became ill. Six people also reported having bought a turtle or received one as a gift.
The CDC advises against buying small turtles (with shells of less than 4 inches) as pets or giving them to people as gifts, something the U.S Food and Drug Administration banned in 1975 due to the association with Salmonella infections, particularly among young children. Estimates suggest the ban has prevented 100,000 cases of salmonellosis in children each year. Salmonellosis is the illness the bacteria causes that leads to vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever.
Despite this ban, turtles have recently re-emerged as popular pets and experts are worried that the Salmonella outbreak will continue because people are unware of the risk associated with buying or distributing small turtles.
Salmonella bacteria occur naturally in turtles, usually without the animals showing any symptoms of illness. Also, turtles do not shed the bacteria continuously, so a negative test result for Salmonella does not necessarily mean a turtle is not infected; it may have just not been shedding the bacteria on the day it was tested.
The CDC recommends not having a turtle in any household where people living there are children under the age of five, elderly individuals or people with lowered immunity due to pregnancy, organ transplant, cancer, chemotherapy, diabetes or other diseases.
If people are going to keep a turtle, the CDC advises handling the animal and any surfaces it has been in contact with as if they were contaminated with Salmonella. After contact with a turtle, its cage or its feces, hands should be washed thoroughly with soap and water, as should any surfaces that the turtle or its cage have been in contact with. Turtles should not be allowed to roam freely and it is especially important to ensure they do not enter areas where food is prepared.
Finally, the CDC advises that the ban prohibiting the sale and distribution of small turtles is still the most effective action to minimize the risk of turtle-associated salmonellosis and protect public health.