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Tiny Turtles: Cute and Covered with Salmonella

Despite a nearly 40-year ban on the sale of tiny turtles in the U.S., the small reptiles are still being sold — and still making people sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

Writing in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC said it is working with the Pennsylvania State Health Department to investigate an 18-state outbreak of illnesses associated with handling small turtles.

From Aug. 5, 2010 to Sept. 26, 2011, 132 cases of infection from Salmonella Paratyphi B var. L (+) tartrate + were reported, according to the CDC. (If that serotype doesn’t sound very scary, consider what the infection is called — paratyphoid fever)

Many of those stricken were kids, who don’t pay much mind to safe-turtle handling practices. Median age of the outbreak cases was 6 years old.

“Although many reptiles carry Salmonella, small turtles pose a greater risk to young children because they are perceived as safe pets, are small enough to be placed in the mouth, and can be handled as toys,” the CDC wrote.

Health authorities keep reminding people that pets can be pathogen carriers, and emphasize the importance of hand washing after touching them. Last year, the CDC reported at least 214 people sickened by their Salmonella-laden African dwarf frogs, and  at least 71 individuals (more than half of them younger than 5) infected with Salmonella from backyard chicks and ducklings.

Salmonella can make people sick with diarrhea, vomiting, fever and severe abdominal cramps. Young children are especially at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing. 

In the epidemiologic investigation of this latest turtle outbreak, 56 ill individuals were interviewed to determine their possible exposure to Salmonella, and 36 (64 percent) of them reported handling turtles. Fourteen people identified turtles too small to be legally traded, according to the CDC.

Five samples of turtle tank water collected from patients’ homes tested positive for the outbreak Salmonella strain.

The sale of turtles with shells smaller than 4 inches has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration since 1975, after thousands of infants and small children were diagnosed with turtle-associated salmonellosis. Before the ban, epidemiologic studies indicated that 14 percent of reported salmonellosis in the United States was attributable to pet turtles.

Despite the ban, transient vendors on the street, at flea markets and at fairs continue to peddle the turtles as pets, the report notes.

The CDC observed that in 2007, the Independent Turtle Farmers of Louisiana sought to overturn the prohibition on the sale of tiny turtles, but a federal district court upheld the FDA’s authority to enforce the ban.

Given this latest outbreak, the CDC says the ban is being ignored, and efforts to educate the public about the risks of small turtles aren’t working. It suggests examining those efforts.

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