Illness from contact with turtles is slowly increasing

Turtle germs WIf you have small kids, beware of small turtles.

A recent analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that turtle-associated illnesses among young children are re-emerging after a federal ban in the 1970s. The analysis, “Outbreaks of Salmonellosis from Small Turtles,” found that between 2011 and 2013 eight multi-state outbreaks of turtle-associated salmonella occurred.

Salmonella is usually a foodborne illness that causes gastroenteritis and can lead to hospitalization and sometimes death. An estimated 11 percent of cases, however, are caused by animal contact — many by reptiles and amphibians. Humans can become infected with salmonella through direct contact with turtles and turtle habitats and by touching contaminated objects and surfaces.

In the early 1970s, exposure to turtles caused an estimated 280,000 salmonella infections annually, mostly in young children according to the analysis. As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration implemented a federal ban on the sale and distribution of small pet turtles in 1975. The federal ban was initially highly effective, according to the analysis, but things are changing.

“Although the federal ban remains in place, the popularity of pet turtles has increased in recent years,” the analysis says. From 2001 to 2011, the percentage of households owning a least one pet turtle nearly doubled. “Multiple reports since 2004 suggest exposure to small pet turtles is a persistent source of salmonellosis in young children,” the report states.

The CDC identified eight outbreaks totaling 473 cases from 41 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico — including 17 cases in Maryland — from May 2011 to September 2013. The median patient was 4 years old. About 45 percent of those infected were Hispanic, and 28 percent were hospitalized, according to the analysis.

A little more than 100 patients and their caregivers were questioned, and only 14 (15 percent) were aware of an association between reptiles and salmonella.

“Despite the 1975 federal ban against the sale of small pet turtles, these animals are readily available to a public that is largely unaware of the association between reptiles and salmonella,” the analysis states. In one outbreak, small turtles were traced from souvenir shops in Florida and two turtle farms in Louisiana.

State and local jurisdictions should consider enacting regulations against the sale of small pet turtles to complement federal enforcement, the analysis concludes.

— Betsy Stein

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