Again this year, young children across the country are becoming violently ill and being hospitalized because of Salmonella infections from contact with pet turtles, many of which are illegal.
Of the 37 victims confirmed with infections, a third are younger than 5 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreak investigators have interviewed 33 of the sick people or their guardians and found half of them, 16, have required hospitalization.
The sick people are spread across 13 states. The first one became ill on March 1, with the most recent person having become ill Aug. 3. This outbreak is expected to continue if properly cared for, turtles have a long life expectancy.
No deaths have been reported, but the outbreak strain of Salmonella Agbeni is a known to health officials.
“In 2015, state and local health officials collected samples from turtles at a street vendor,” according to the CDC. “Whole genome sequencing showed that the Salmonella Agbeni isolated from ill people in this outbreak is closely related genetically to the Salmonella Agbeni isolates from turtles. This close genetic relationship means that people in this outbreak are more likely to share a common source of infection.
“Epidemiologic and laboratory findings link the outbreak of human Salmonella Agbeni infections to contact with turtles or their environments, such as water from a turtle habitat.”
Of the 33 victims for whom interview information was available, 45 percent reported contact with turtles or their environments before getting sick. Investigators asked nine victims where their turtles had come from. Six reported buying them from a street vendor or receiving them as a gift.
If you believe you are infected
Anyone who has recently been exposed to pet turtles, especially those with shells less than 4 inches long, and developed symptoms of Salmonella infection should seem medical attention and tell their doctors about the possible exposure so the proper diagnostic tests can be performed.
Symptoms for most people can include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, beginning 12 to 72 hours after exposure to the bacteria.Illness from Salmonella usually lasts four to seven days, according to the CDC.
In some people, the diarrhea may be so severe that the person needs to be hospitalized. Salmonella infections are more likely to be severe for children younger than 5 years, older adults and people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, diabetes, and liver or kidney disease.
It’s the law
No one should buy so-called tiny turtles os pets or gifts. Federal law prohibits the sale or distribution of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long. The law has been in place since 1975 after the Food and Drug Administration had definitive evidence linking the animals to Salmonella infections, especially in young children.
All turtles, regardless of size, can carry Salmonella bacteria even if they look healthy and clean. Parents are urged to closely supervise children of all ages when they are handling turtles or cleaning their tanks.
The CDC suggests that parents of children younger than 5 years old consider another kind of pet. Also, households that include people over 65 years old or anyone with a compromised immune system, such as cancer patients, should not choose turtles or reptiles as pets.
Additional tips from the CDC include:
- Never allow turtles to walk on kitchen counters or other food contact surfaces.
- Don’t kiss or snuggle with your turtle. This can increase your risk of getting sick.
- Don’t bathe turtles or clean their tanks in your kitchen or bathroom. Do this outside, or use a tub or bin that is only used for your pet if you must do it inside.
- Always wash your hands with soap and running water immediately after handling your pet turtle or touching areas where they live and roam, especially tank water.
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