Salmonella Outbreak Linked To Turtles

Since 1975, federal law has prohibited the sale of small pet turtles with shells, called carapace, that are shorter than four inches in shell length; however, public health officials say enforcement is spotty. Perhaps it is this uneven monitoring that allows the tiny banned pets to be sold in pet stores across the country more than three decades after the ban, an issue on which we have long been writing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned distribution and sale of these turtles after a quarter of a million infants and small children were diagnosed with turtle-associated <"">Salmonellosis. Turtles with shells larger than four inches are not considered a threat by the agency, as young children will likely not try to fit the animals in their mouths. The ban allows for exceptions, however, such at exportation to other countries and sale to experts for legitimate scientific, educational, and exhibition purposes; selling turtles to pet stores is not among legitimate exceptions.

MedPageToday recently reported that during a massive outbreak two years ago—considered the largest in this country linked to turtles—children handling the small pets experienced an astronomical 41-fold increased risk of Salmonella contamination versus control groups, citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Julie R. Harris, PhD, and colleagues. The report appears online in Pediatrics.

In 2007, patients who began being diagnosed with Salmonella enterica serotype Paratyphi B var Java infections also reported recent turtle exposure. Some 107 infections with the same strain were reported in 34 states, said MedPageToday. The median patient age was seven, most of the turtles involved were less than four inches and banned under federal regulations, and over one-third of the banned turtles were bought in retail pet establishments. “Small turtles continue to be sold and pose a health risk, especially to children…. And many people remain unaware of the link between Salmonella infection and reptile contact,” wrote MedPageToday, quoting the team.

Salmonellae are, explained MedPageToday, “natural intestinal flora for all reptiles. The problem with the small turtles is that children likely handle them differently than they do other reptiles such as “pet snakes, lizards, or iguanas,” noted MedPageToday. Adding to the problem, say the research team is that “the recent development of domestic turtle farms in Asia has placed pressure on the U.S. turtle industry, previously exporting millions of turtles each year to China, to find new markets for turtles,” quoted MedPageToday.

The team cited American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that state that the household turtle population doubled in the United States from about 950,000 in 1996 to nearly two million just ten years later, reported MedPageToday. The researchers also noted a doubling in household market penetration during the same time said MedPageToday. Emerging evidence points to a rise in reptile-originated Salmonella outbreaks.

While salmonella bacteria are most often associated with food poisoning, a growing percentage initiate with turtles. Turtles can carry a variety of salmonella without symptoms, releasing the germ in their feces. Small turtles are especially troublesome because they are often bred in crowded conditions and are more likely to be given to children as pets.

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