Despite warnings, a considerable number of young Michigan children catch Salmonella from pet reptiles, a new study shows.
Between January 2001 and June 2003, approximately 12 percent of Salmonella cases among Michigan children 5 years old or younger were the result of children’s contact with a reptile.
Study author Dr. Eden V. Wells explained that reptiles carry the bacteria that cause salmonellosis, and most of the children who became infected from reptiles lived in households that had reptiles.
However, Wells, who is based at the Michigan Department of Community Health, explained that some infected children may not have had direct contact with the reptile. Reptiles can harbor the bacteria in their feces and all over their body, so every surface they pass over can leave traces of the bugs, she said, providing many opportunities for kids to become infected.
“Because indirect contact is a significant source of Salmonella infection, it is better for children under age 5, and those people who are immunocompromised, to avoid contact with reptiles,” Wells told Reuters Health.
Previous research has shown that infants and young children are more likely to become infected with the bacteria that cause salmonellosis, and are particularly susceptible to Salmonella from reptiles.
Moreover, infants and children who become infected are more likely to develop complications as a result, such as meningitis, and can even die.
Indeed, after legislators banned the sale of small turtles in 1975, the rate of Salmonella among children dropped by 18 percent. However, an estimated 1.5 to 2.5 million households in the U.S. are still home to reptiles, Wells and her colleagues report in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
To investigate the rate of Salmonella from reptiles in young children in Michigan, Wells and her team reviewed the case reports from local health departments that were reported to the Michigan Department of Community Health. People who were infected were tested to see if they carried strains of Salmonella associated with reptiles.
Among the 1387 cases of Salmonella that occurred during the study period, 106 were likely caused by exposure to a reptile, and 50 of those reptile exposures occurred in children 5 years old or younger.
To keep children safe from a potentially deadly infection, Wells suggested that pet stores, healthcare providers and veterinarians inform reptile owners about the risks of infection, and how to prevent it.
In addition, she said that parents should make sure that children do not come in contact with anything touched by a reptile. “Reptiles and amphibians should not be in households that have children less than 5 years of age,” she said.
SOURCE: Clinical Infectious Diseases, September 2004.
Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD