Three Louisville, Kentucky children and their father recently contracted Salmonella from two lizards (green anoles) that the kids brought home from school. Two weeks after the lizards were brought home, the youngest child got sick. Then the other kids and the father got sick.
This outbreak highlights numerous problems:
Schools are not pet stores: Why is an exotic (and difficult to care for) pet that is a known Salmonella vector being sent home with students? Apparently, the school sent home a standard letter they use when students take home pets. (I assume sending animals home must be a very common event if the school has a standard form for it.) The letter provides "caretaking tips" but apparently mentions nothing about Salmonella and reptiles. The school has now modified the letter to include a "reminder to parents that good hygiene is imperative when dealing with any kind of living organism as a pet, so they need to make sure their kids wash their hands well after handling them or cleaning them out." That’s better, but if they are sending home reptiles, they need a clear statement about the risk of Salmonella exposure. They need to be direct and highlight the greater risk associated with reptiles.
Lack of education before getting a pet: Too many pets die and too many people get sick because people don’t take the responsible step of finding out about the animal before they adopt it as a pet. This is particularly true with exotic pets, and death of the pet is a common outcome. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find out basic information about reptile care, and information about the risk of salmonellosis should be easy to find.
Poor knowledge (or a poor attempt at damage control) by the school: The teacher "noted that other common pets, such as dogs, can also carry salmonella. Like lizards, they’re perfectly safe as long as you practice proper handwashing when you handle them." Except for the fact that 0-1% of healthy dogs carry Salmonella while very high percentages of reptiles do, that tens of thousands of cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis occur every year, that contact with reptiles is a major risk factor for salmonellosis, and that the CDC (among other groups) recommends that children less than five years of age and other high-risk groups not have contact with reptiles. This type of statement is misleading. It’s unfortunately either an indication of ignorance of the issues or an attempt to cover their butts and not take their share of the responsibility for what happened. Certain reptiles can be good pets in certain situations, but are clearly inappropriate in others.
The "it’s never happened before so it must be safe" fallacy: The school’s disappointing response was that they’ve been using lizards in classrooms for years and no one has gotten sick. Well, their luck just ran out. Just because I could drive around without a seatbelt and not get hurt doesn’t mean not using a seatbelt is a perfectly safe plan. Risky behaviours tend to catch up with you eventually.
The "it didn’t happen here so it’s not our fault" excuse: School officials said teachers are well-trained on the proper way to prevent students from getting Salmonella, but that’s pretty debatable since three kids got sick because of their actions (i.e. sending the reptiles to the children’s home). The infections may not have originated in the school but the school was still the source of the problem.
Poor hygiene associated with reptile contact: The father admitted that they didn’t wash their hands regularly after handling the lizards.
There’s little excuse for sending reptiles home with kids. Reptiles require specialized care and commitment, and many (many!) die each year from inappropriate care. The last thing we need is to make it easier for people to obtain them without much forethought. Reptile-associated salmonellosis is a serious problem, especially in kids. Serious, including fatal, infections can occur. Schools need to realize the liability they might assume by sending these animals into households, especially with inadequate scrutiny and education. Reptiles should not be kept in households with kids less than five years of age, pregnant women, elderly individuals or immunocompromised individuals. I doubt they asked whether any such people lived in the household before sending the reptiles home.