Contact with small pet turtles was to blame for 103 Salmonella infections that occurred in 33 states between May and December 2007, according to federal health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.
Salmonella infections can be severe, leading to hospitalization and, in some cases, death, the CDC notes in the current issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Turtles and other reptiles are well-known reservoirs for Salmonella and while the sale and distribution of small turtles — measuring less than 4 inches — was officially outlawed in the U.S. in 1975, cases of turtle-associated Salmonella infection continue to occur. "Small turtles remain available to the public from various sources, including pet shops, flea markets, street vendors, and Internet web sites," the CDC notes.
Roughly half of the Salmonella infections documented in the 2007 outbreak occurred in young children, who are at greater risk for severe illness from Salmonella infection. Most of those infected reported exposure to turtles within 7 days of becoming sick with symptoms such as bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting. No deaths were reported.
The CDC's investigation into the outbreak also revealed that in a subset of 60 infected individuals interviewed, only one fifth were aware of the link between Salmonella infection and contact with reptiles, "indicating that measures to educate the public about this link have not been successful," the researchers acknowledge.
According to the CDC, direct or indirect contact with reptiles causes an estimated 6 percent of all human Salmonella infections in the U.S. People who come in contact with reptiles, reptile habitats, or surfaces contaminated with reptile feces need to remember that they risk Salmonella infection, CDC officials caution.