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Hey, backyard farmers, want to avoid Salmonella? Stop cuddling with your chickens, says CDC

It’s the second year in a row that the CDC has issued such a warning. Apparently, not everyone is getting the message.

Outbreaks of live poultry-associated Salmonella has jumped from an average of one a year between 1990 and 2005 to four a year between 2006 and 2014.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

To protect themselves from a Salmonella infection, backyard poultry farmers should avoid getting cuddly with their birds and keep them out of their homes, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It’s the second year in a row that the CDC has issued such a warning. Apparently, not everyone is getting the message. For, as the agency points out in its latest report, the number of backyard poultry growers who become infected with Salmonella has increased significantly in recent years.

Outbreaks of live poultry-associated Salmonella has jumped from an average of one a year between 1990 and 2005 to four a year between 2006 and 2014.

And it’s primarily due to people treating their chickens and ducks like household pets.

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“Most contact occurred at the patients’ home, and high-risk behaviors included keeping poultry inside the house and having close contact, such as holding, snuggling, or kissing poultry,” the CDC report states. “These findings highlight the need for additional consumer education, especially on the risk for illness in children, the necessity for keeping live poultry outside of the home, and the recommendation to wash hands after coming in contact with live poultry.”

Salmonella behind many foodborne illnesses

The Salmonella bacterium is one of the leading causes of foodborne illness in the United States, causing more than 1.2 million Americans to become sick each year. About 19,000 of those cases are serious enough to require hospitalization, and almost 400 people die from the illness annually.

Symptoms, which typically include fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, begin 12 to 72 hours after infection and tend to last for four to seven days.

Salmonella is most commonly transmitted through food, but about 11 percent of cases are the result of direct exposure to animals, particularly turtles, bearded dragons, African dwarf frogs, hedgehogs, and backyard poultry. To figure out how many of those cases were associated with backyard poultry, the CDC researchers examined databases and studies for all such reports made between 1990 and 2014.

The data revealed 53 outbreaks of live-poultry-associated Salmonella during that 24-year period. Those outbreaks caused 2,630 illnesses, 387 hospitalizations and five deaths.

As the researchers point out, the actual number of cases was probably much higher, for few Salmonella infections are diagnosed and reported to public health officials. They estimate that for each reported case, another 29 go unreported.

Inexperienced ‘farmers’

The CDC researchers believe unfamiliarity with “appropriate animal husbandry practices,” may be what’s behind many of the live-poultry-associated Salmonella outbreaks of recent years, particularly since half of the patients in one survey had owned their birds for less than a year.

Poor animal husbandry is also evident in these rather surprising admissions from the 400 or so patients who answered a CDC questionnaire:

  • 13 percent said they kissed their baby birds
  • 49 percent said they snuggled with them
  • 46 percent said they kept their poultry indoors (including 12 percent who said they kept them in the kitchen)

“Persons need to be aware that healthy poultry can shed Salmonella intermittently, that persons need to wash their hands after contact with live poultry, that young children are at an increased risk for salmonellosis, and that poultry should never be allowed inside the house,” the CDC report concludes.

Prevention tips for everybody

Of course, most people are at risk of getting a Salmonella infection from sources other than a backyard chicken or duck. So, here is the CDC’s full list of “quick tips” for preventing the illness:

  • Cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly.
  • Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs, or raw (unpasteurized) milk.
  • If you are served undercooked meat, poultry or eggs in a restaurant, don’t hesitate to send it back to the kitchen for further cooking.
  • Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, and utensils with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry.
  • Be particularly careful with foods prepared for infants, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.
  • Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles, birds, or baby chicks, and after contact with pet feces.
  • Avoid direct or even indirect contact between reptiles (turtles, iguanas, other lizards, snakes) and infants or immunocompromised persons.
  • Don’t work with raw poultry or meat, and an infant (e.g., feed, change diaper) at the same time.
  • Mother’s milk is the safest food for young infants. Breastfeeding prevents salmonellosis and many other health problems.

For more info: The CDC report appears in the October 2016 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is published by the agency.