Why your adorable pet tur­tle may make your child sick

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR. Wash­ing­ton Post

In­ves­ti­ga­tors try­ing to fig­ure out why dozens of peo­ple across 13 U.S. states have been stricken with sal­mo­nella poi­son­ing have stum­bled on the rea­son be­hind the out­break: Adorable tiny pet tur­tles.

Peo­ple started get­ting sick on March 1, says a state­ment on the out­break by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion. In five months, as the out­break spread, 16 peo­ple were hos­pi­tal­ized. Twelve of the sick were chil­dren ages 5 or younger.

Doc­tors and re­searchers started ask­ing ques­tions of the vic­tims and found that six had bought a tur­tle from a flea market or a street ven­dor — or had re­ceived a tur­tle that turned out to be a sal­mo­nella-har­bour­ing gift.

Although this may not come as a sur­prise to any­one sus­pi­cious of murky green aquar­ium wa­ter, tur­tles aren’t ex­actly the health­i­est pets. The health dan­gers from tur­tles are so se­ri­ous that fed­eral law pro­hibits sell­ing or dis­tribut­ing tur­tles with a shell length less than four inches.

The CDC has gen­er­ally en­cour­aged pet seek­ers — par­tic­u­larly homes with small chil­dren, el­derly adults or peo­ple with com­pro­mised im­mune sys­tems — to steer clear of shelled rep­tiles. All tur­tles shed sal­mo­nella in their drop­pings, the CDC says, and sal­mo­nella can end up on their shells or skin — or in the wa­ter they swim in.

Chil­dren are es­pe­cially at risk, be­cause, as The Post’s Dina ElBogh­dady wrote in 2012, “kids couldn’t re­sist kiss­ing the toy­like rep­tiles or plac­ing them in their mouths, some­times con­tam­i­nat­ing them­selves with the sal­mo­nella com­monly found on tur­tles.”

To pre­vent peo­ple from get­ting sick, the CDC pub­lished a handy, kid-friendly fact sheet, telling peo­ple “don’t kiss or snug­gle with your tur­tle. This can in­crease your risk of get­ting sick.” Not ev­ery­one got the mes­sage. In 2015 and 2016, more than 200 peo­ple were sick­ened in sim­i­lar out­breaks linked to small tur­tles. Nearly half of the vic­tims were 5 or younger. Be­tween 2011 and 2013, 473 peo­ple were sick­ened by tur­tles in pretty much ev­ery state.

Through genome se­quenc­ing of the Sal­mo­nella ag­beni bac­te­ria at the heart of this most re­cent out­break, sci­en­tists have learned that the bac­te­ria tur­tles har­bour is very sim­i­lar to the bac­te­ria that sends hu­mans run­ning to the re­stroom or the hospi­tal.

Although both hu­mans and tur­tles can har­bour the bac­te­ria, it doesn’t make tur­tles sick, ac­cord­ing to the CDC. Hu­mans usu­ally get the com­mon symp­toms of sal­mo­nella in­fec­tion: ab­dom­i­nal cramps, fever and di­ar­rhea. Most peo­ple feel bet­ter within five to seven days. Deaths are rare, and none have been re­ported with this out­break.

It’s not just tur­tles. Pet rep­tiles in gen­eral seem to be sus­pect, ac­cord­ing to the CDC. Rep­tiles are re­spon­si­ble for 70,000 cases of salmonel­lare­lated ill­ness ev­ery year, the CDC es­ti­mates, in­clud­ing a few ma­jor out­breaks in re­cent years: Pet crested geckos sick­ened 22 peo­ple in 2015. A year ear­lier, bearded dragons side­lined 166 peo­ple.

Most rep­utable pet shops are aware of the dan­gers — and are con­sis­tently in­spected.

But, as ElBogh­dady wrote, in­ves­ti­ga­tors have tried to crack down on a “thriv­ing black market” of sus­pect pets, in­clud­ing tur­tles raised on farms and sold at flea mar­kets.

“In Mary­land, au­thor­i­ties have seized about 500 un­der­size tur­tles in the past year,” she wrote in 2012. “They’ve busted two tur­tle ven­dors in Mont­gomery County in the past two weeks: One for sell­ing the tur­tles to a Sil­ver Spring store; the other for hawk­ing them at the Six Flags park­ing lot.”


Although this may not come as a sur­prise to any­one sus­pi­cious of murky green aquar­ium wa­ter, tur­tles aren’t ex­actly the health­i­est pets.

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