THURSDAY, Jan. 22, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- While peanut butter contaminated with salmonella has dominated the headlines recently, U.S. health officials cautioned Thursday that salmonella bacteria is also prevalent in live poultry.
The Jan. 23 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report details two different outbreaks of salmonella Montevideo in 2007 that were traced to live poultry.
The first outbreak was identified in September 2007 by the North Dakota Department of Health. Those stricken with the bacterial infection included three siblings, aged 1, 3 and 7. All three developed diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps, and were hospitalized for eight to 10 days.
All told, an estimated 65 people -- 60 percent of them adults -- were sickened in North Dakota and 19 other states. Investigators linked the salmonella infections to the handling of live, older poultry bought for meat or egg production. The outbreak occurred in the fall and winter, and the trail eventually led to hatcheries in Iowa and four other states, the CDC said.
The second outbreak began in the spring of 2007, and 70 percent of the infections were among children -- average age 5 -- who handled baby chicks and ducklings bought as Easter pets. A total of 64 people in 23 states fell ill. The infection was traced to a New Mexico hatchery.
"Live poultry is a source of human salmonella infections," said Dr. Umid Sharapov, a CDC medical epidemiologist and co-author of the report. "Persons should wash their hands with soap and water after handling live poultry. Children younger than 5 should not be allowed to handle baby chicks."
The CDC estimates that there are 1.5 million cases of salmonella poisoning each year in the United States from a variety of causes, with undercooked meat and eggs being the prime culprits.
Dr. Pascal James Imperato, dean and Distinguished Service Professor of the Graduate Program in Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City, said there is insufficient regulation of the poultry industry, making salmonella widespread among chickens and other poultry.
"Human salmonella infections due to contact with poultry are not uncommon," Imperato said. "Poultry can be healthy carriers of salmonella and not exhibit any apparent illness."
The risks are especially high for young children who come into contact with baby chicks and ducklings purchased as pets by parents at Easter time, he said.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, said he thinks the way poultry is raised contributes to the high prevalence of salmonella in these birds.
"I am aghast at how we allow our poultry to be raised in squalor," he said. "The conditions they are in -- they are living in their own poop -- cause salmonella to thrive."
"This article points out the ease with which salmonella spreads from live poultry to humans," Siegel added. "This is a reminder that our poultry population is infested with salmonella."
Salmonella, as well as other health threats, can be transmitted by many other pets, including exotic ones.
The number of exotic animals in the United States has almost doubled since 2002, with 4.4 million homes now harboring reptiles, and 40,000 households home to hedgehogs, according to a report in the October 2008 issue of Pediatrics.
In 2003, a human monkey pox outbreak was traced back to imported African Gambian rats that had infected prairie dogs sold as pets. And small pet turtles were responsible for 103 cases of salmonella infection in the second half of last year, mostly among young children, the report found.
For more on salmonella, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.