THURSDAY, March 10, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Pet turtles are a common and often underreported source of Salmonella infection. Six recent cases have been reported in Wisconsin and Wyoming, and these may be just the tip of the iceberg, federal health officials said Thursday.

Since 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned the commercial distribution of turtles measuring less than 4 inches across the shell.

According to the FDA, the ban has prevented some 100,000 cases of salmonellosis -- the bacterial disease caused by the germ salmonella -- among children each year. However, increased sales of small turtles have led to the fear that cases of salmonella infection may be on the rise, the agency said.

The six cases are reported in the March 11 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The four cases in Wisconsin involved three young children and the mother of one of the children. An investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Public Health found that at least six souvenir shops in four Wisconsin counties were distributing turtles.

This is no surprise, said Dr. Patricia Fox, an epidemiologist with the Wisconsin Department of Health. "It's a pretty common infection, which is often underreported," she noted.

In Wyoming, one case involved a young boy and the other an 80-year-old woman. In both cases, turtles were purchased from the same pet store.

Store owners are getting around the ban of the sale of these turtles, said investigator Dr. Jamie Snow from the Wyoming Department of Public Health. "They are using the clause in the ban that says that they can sell them for educational purposes," she noted. In many cases, distributors may also be misleading store owners, she said, telling them the "educational purposes" clause allows them to freely sell the reptiles to one and all.

Snow thinks many stores are aware of the ban, but are pushing this loophole in the law. "The ban is in place for a reason," Snow said. "People, especially those with young children, should not buy the smaller turtles."

According to the MMWR report, "These cases highlight the need for local health and environmental officers to be aware that illegal distribution of small turtles might be widespread. Additional sales of small turtles were reported in South Carolina and Texas in recent years. Investigators in both Wisconsin and Wyoming discovered that many retailers were aware of the FDA ban but attempted to circumvent it by giving turtles away with purchase of a turtle habitat or by claiming that turtles were being distributed for educational purposes only."

Salmonella infections usually result in diarrhea and fever, but can also lead to severe illness, such as septicemia or meningitis, especially in infants and people with weak immune systems. All reptiles are a source of salmonella infection. The disease is transmitted by contact with the animal's fecal matter, which can occur simply by touching the animal, according to the CDC.

The ban on the sale of small turtles was instituted because the FDA was concerned that young children would have these turtles as pets and were more likely to touch or put them in their mouths.

More than 90 percent of reptiles carry salmonella, the CDC report noted. An estimated 74,000 cases of the approximately 1.2 million cases of salmonella infection each year in the United States are caused by contact with reptiles and amphibians, according to the report.

If you're going to keep reptiles, you need to be careful, Snow said. Precautions should include hand washing after contact with the animal, not cleaning the animal's habitat in a kitchen sink or bathroom, and disinfecting the area used for cleaning the animal's habitat.

More monitoring of pet stores and more public education are needed to help eliminate the sale of small turtles and alert people to the danger of salmonella infection, Fox said.

"Those selling these turtles are clearly breaking the law and endangering people's health," she said.

More information

The CDC can tell you more about salmonella from turtles.

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