Over 100 Salmonella Cases Caused by Exposure to Pet TurtlesJan 25, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
A Salmonella outbreak responsible for sickening 103 people – mostly kids – has been traced to pet turtles. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the 33 state Salmonella outbreak resulted in 24 hospital stays, and is the largest Salmonella outbreak ever linked to pet turtles. It is illegal to sell many pet turtles in the United States, but because this is a difficult law to enforce, the sale of Salmonella infected turtles continues.
While no one has died in this most recent turtle Salmonella outbreak -- which began in August—some have experienced severe symptoms, including acute kidney failure. The most common symptoms reported to the CDC included bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, and vomiting. Reports have generated from 33 states, with the greatest concentrations in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Most patients have been children with an average age of around seven and a-half years. "With over 100 cases reported, that's fairly substantial," said Mark Sotir, a CDC epidemiologist in Atlanta. "For every case that's reported to the CDC, we estimate 30 or 40 sick people that haven't been reported."
This outbreak was detected after two teenagers were taken to different hospitals in North Carolina and South Carolina on the same day. The girls had swum together in an unchlorinated pool that two pet turtles had also swum in. A salmonella strain known as Paratyphi B variant Java was isolated from one of the girls and in the water of the turtles' habitat.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's public health director, said he had a simple piece of advice for parents thinking about buying a pet turtle: Don't. "If you have them, make sure you're washing your hands a lot after you're touching them," he said.
Since 1975, federal law has prohibited the sale of pet turtles with shells—carapace—shorter than 4 inches; however, public health officials say enforcement is spotty. The FDA banned the distribution and sale of these turtles after a quarter of a million infants and small children were diagnosed with turtle-associated almonellosis. 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. For instance, turtles can be exported to other countries and sold to experts for legitimate scientific, educational, and exhibition purposes; selling turtles to pet stores is not among legitimate exceptions.
While salmonella bacteria are most often associated with food poisoning, about six percent of infections come from 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.
Nearly half of the patients recalled contact with a turtle; others were friends or relatives of turtle owners; many reported feeding, kissing, or playing with a turtle. The turtles generally came from pet shops, but were also bought at flea markets or from street vendors. The CDC is investigating whether the outbreak can be traced to a common turtle distributor or farm.