You’d think, after countless outbreak of salmonellosis associated with pet turtles, that people would learn and things would start to improve. I guess not. A paper published this week in Pediatrics (Harris et al) described a large outbreak of Salmonella Java associated with pet turtles. Between May 2007 and January 2008, 107 infections were identified. The median age (the age in the middle of the range of affected people) was seven years old. Sixty percent of infected people reported exposure to turtles during the week before they got sick; 87% were small (<4 inch) turtles, and 34% were purchased at a retail store (despite the fact that the sale of turtles less than 4 inches long is banned in the US). Five infected people, all less than 10 years of age, reported kissing the turtle or putting it in their mouths.
When they compared people with Salmonella Java infection to people without the infection, 72% of people with Salmonella reported contact with turtles versus only 4% of controls.
Salmonella is far from rare but it’s nothing to ignore. Thirty-three percent of infected people were hospitalized. Fortunately, no one died.
The link between turtles and Salmonella has been known for a long time. Healthy turtles can carry the Salmonella bacterium and be a source of infection, particularly for children. The sale of small turtles is banned in the US to reduce the likelihood of close contact between turtles and kids, but this law is widely flouted. An understanding of the link between turtles and Salmonella is surprisingly uncommon – only 32% of Salmonella patients in this study (and 28% of controls) reporting knowledge of this link. Clearly, there are a lot of areas which could be improved.
- If banning the sale of small turtles is truly an effective measure, then it should be enforced. "Black market’ turtles are far too easy to find.
- More public education is needed, among the general population and particularly people buying turtles. You shouldn’t be able to take a turtle home from a store without an information sheet about the risk of Salmonella and how to avoid it.
- People with turtles (or any reptile) need to recognize the risk and act appropriately. Good general infection control and hygiene measures are needed to reduce the risk of Salmonella exposure.
- Households with children under five years of age, or with immunocompromised individuals should not have pet turtles.
- Antibiotics are not the solution. Attempts to create Salmonella-free turtles with drugs have just led to the production of turtles carrying antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.
- Common sense needs to be a little more common. The picture above (from http://www.familylovezone.com/js_DeepAndWide.htm) was proudly posted by a parent.
More information about infectious disease risks associated with turtles can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.