Animals popular with Easter may spread Salmonella

State health officials are warning Marylanders that baby rabbits, turtles, chicks, ducklings and other animals popular around the Easter holiday can spread salmonella and other harmful bacteria to people.

Since September 2001, six people in Maryland have contracted bacterial infections from baby turtles, or those with shells less than four inches wide, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Five of the cases required hospitalizations. U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules don’t allow the sale of baby turtles, but in three of the cases the turtles were bought from a neighborhood baby turtle vendor.

The state decided to issue its warning Tuesday because they know many parents buy their children baby animals around Easter, said Kia Tolson, an epidemiologist with the state’s Division of Outbreak Investigation.

Tolson said it is not clear yet whether the problem is worsening, but that said the issue is an ongoing concern.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been investigating three ongoing Salmonella outbreaks all associated with turtle exposures. The three outbreaks have affected 63 individuals in 16 states.

Children are especially susceptible to infections because their immune systems are developing and they are more likely to put their fingers in their mouths after handling a baby animal. They can be exposed to the bacteria by holding, cuddling, or kissing their pets. Petting animals on display at pet stores can also spread the bacteria.

Symptoms common with Salmonella bacteria include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and abdominal cramps six to 72 hours after exposure. These symptoms usually last two to seven days and most persons recover without treatment.

In some cases, the diarrhea may become severe enough that a patient needs to be hospitalized. In rarer instances, salmonella can cause death if it spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream and to other body sites and is not treated with antibiotics.

The elderly, infants and those with weakened immune systems are prone to the worst symptoms from the bacterial disease.

FDA regulations in effect since 1975 prohibit the sale as pets of turtles with shells 4 inches long or smaller.  Anyone convicted of selling the baby turtles can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to jail for up to a year for each offense.

DHMH offers these tips to help prevent the spread of salmonella: Recognize the risk of Salmonella infections in pets, including chicks, ducklings, rabbits, amphibians, reptiles, turtles and other animals.

Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water right after handling any pets, pet food, treats and water the pets may have been in.

Do not use kitchen sinks to empty or wash the pet's habitat (e.g., cage, aquarium or tank). If possible, empty and wash the habitat outside of the home, using disposable gloves. If bathtubs are used for cleaning the pet's habitat, they should be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected with bleach. Young children should not be allowed to clean the pet's habitat.

If you are at high risk for serious Salmonella infection (children under 5 years old, older persons, pregnant women, or people who have weak immune systems, such as cancer patients and those undergoing chemotherapy or organ transplants) avoid contact with animals and pets and their habitat (e.g., cage, aquarium or tank).

Watch for symptoms of Salmonella infection such as diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps in yourself or in your family members. Call your health care provider if you or a family member has any of these symptoms.

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