THURSDAY, March 29, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- With Easter just 10 days away, many parents are probably thinking about giving baby chicks to their children as pets. But doing so can put kids in harm's way, because the animals may carry a serious -- and potentially fatal -- germ called salmonella, U.S. health officials warn.
Federal researchers have traced 81 infections and three outbreaks of salmonella in 2006 to the handling of baby chicks.
"This is a long-standing issue," said Dr. Pascal James Imperato, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and community health at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, in New York City. "We know that chicks and ducklings are often carriers of salmonella."
When these animals are touched by young children, the risk of fecal oral contamination is very high, Imperato said. "For most people in the United States, it is inappropriate for parents to give children baby chicks," he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 1.5 million cases of salmonella poisoning each year in the United States from a variety of causes.
"In recent years, there have been more outbreaks associated with exposure to chicks," said Dr. Nicholas Gaffga, a CDC medical epidemiologist, adding this could be due to better reporting of cases.
Reporting in the March 30 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC researchers cited three outbreaks last year, including one in Kansas where 10 children who handled baby chicks at a day-care center were infected with salmonella.
A couple of months later, 46 people in Kansas came down with the same strain of the disease after buying chicks. Eight of these people were hospitalized. Many of the people who bought the chicks wanted them as pets for their children, according to the CDC report.
The other outbreaks occurred in Michigan and in Washington state.
"The CDC recommends that children under 5 years of age do not have contact with baby birds," Gaffga said. "If older children touch baby birds, they should wash their hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds."
In addition, clothes, tables, bathtubs, floors -- anything the bird touches -- should be considered contaminated until they are properly cleaned, Gaffga said.
Gaffga also noted that chicks that are dyed Easter colors are even less safe than un-dyed chicks. "Chicks are dyed to make them more attractive to children," he said. "Many states prohibit the sale of dyed chicks. This is to prevent them from being sold to children as pets."
Imperato said that while hand-washing can prevent the transmission of salmonella, it's not something easily monitored, especially among small children. "Parents should really avoid giving children baby chicks as pets," he said.
According to the CDC, salmonella is a bacteria that produces an infection called salmonellosis. Most persons infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness typically lasts four to seven days, and most persons recover without treatment.
But for some, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. In these patients, the infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream, and then to other body sites, and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness, the CDC said.
For more on the health risks posed by baby chicks, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.