At this time of year, I start to see ads from local feed supply stores about annual chick sales. Overall, it's not a big deal and most people that buy chicks don't have problems. However, it can be a particular concern for certain high risk groups, particularly young children, and outbreaks of salmonellosis are a recurring issue.
Contact with young poultry is considered very high risk for Salmonella exposure, since Salmonella shedding rates amongst the little guys are pretty high. Most outbreaks of salmonellosis disproportionately involve young kids, due to a combination of increased handling, poor hygiene and inherent increased susceptibility of young kids to infection. The problem is that sometimes people buy chicks because their young kids want to raise and handle them. Outbreaks associated with sales of young chicks, as well as hatching chicks in schools and daycare, have been reported.
A recent CDC report describes yet another multistate outbreak of Salmonella, this time associated with a mail-order hatchery.
The outbreak occurred from February to October 2011 and was first noticed through lab-based identification of clusters of Salmonella Altona and Salmonella Johannesburg. Ultimately, 68 cases of S. Altona and 28 of S. Johannesburg infection were identified in 24 states. Here are some highlights:
- 32% of people with S. Altona and 75% with S. Johannesburg were kids 5 years of age or younger.
- 74% of people with S. Altona and 71% of people with S. Johnannesburg reported recent contact with young poultry.
- Most people that had poultry contact reported purchasing chicks or ducklings at local agricultural feed stores. These stores got the chicks and ducklings from a single mail-order hatchery.
Mass production of animals for widespread distribution, whether it's guinea pigs like I wrote about the other day, or chicks and ducklings here, increases the risk of widespread outbreaks because a single focus of infection can have far-reaching effects.
Mass production and mail-ordering of chicks isn't likely to stop, so what can people do to reduce the risk?
- Keep high-risk people (that is kids 5 years of age or less, elderly individuals, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems) away from young poultry. This includes keeping chicks out of schools, where hatching chicks is still performed in some areas.
- Use good hygiene practices when handling chicks or anything in their environment. Assume that all of the chicks are shedding Salmonella and treat them accordingly. By that I mean use good general hygiene practices, particularly hand hygiene, to reduce the risk of exposure.
- Stores selling chicks should also provide basic safety information to inform and remind people to use appropriate practices to reduce the risk of infection.