LANSING (WWJ) - Health officials say the handling of small pet turtles is to blame for a recent series of salmonella outbreaks.
A total of three outbreaks occurred over the past 18 months across 43 states, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.
At least five people, most of them children, were sickened in Michigan
In nearly one-third of the cases, the turtles were purchased from street vendors. Officials have traced some of the creatures to farms in Florida and Louisiana.
The cases are under investigation.
Many people don't know that turtles and other pet reptiles, such as snakes and lizards — and amphibians, such as frogs and toads, can carry Salmonella bacteria and be a source of human infection.
For those who already own a small pet turtle, MHDC spokesperson Angela Minicuci offered this advice:
"We don't recommend that they release them into the wild," Minicuci said. "Instead, we recommend that you contact a pet retailer, a pet store, to talk to them about it. Also, you can speak with a local animal shelter or a veterinarian for other options as well."
Dr. James Averill, State Veterinarian at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said that, since 1975, it's been illegal in the U.S. to sell or distribute small turtles — other than for education or research.
Although the sale of small turtles as pets is banned, some shops continue to carry them; and small turtles continue to cause human Salmonella infections, especially in young children.
In 2013, according to the MDCH, there were eight national outbreaks connected with small turtles or their habitats, totaling 473 human Salmonella infections in people from 43 states and territories.
"The small turtle ban, enforced by the FDA, likely remains the most effective public health action to prevent Salmonella infections associated with turtles, particularly in young children," said Dr. Matthew Davis, Chief Medical Executive at the MDCH. "Turtles and other reptiles are not recommended as pets for your family, especially if there are children five-years-old and younger, or people with weakened immune systems living in your home."
Salmonella can survive on hands, clothing, cages, equipment, floors and other surfaces that an infected animal has touched, so a person can also be exposed to the bacteria by contact with these objects.
Michigan residents are urged to take the following steps to avoid Salmonella infection:
- Don't buy small turtles (shell length less than four inches) from pet stores, websites, street vendors, swap meets, or other sources.
- Keep reptiles out of homes with young children or people with weakened immune systems.
- Avoid letting reptiles roam indoors and keep them away from food preparation or eating areas.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water immediately after touching a reptile or anything in the area where they live. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available. Adults should always supervise hand washing for young children.
- Reptiles should not be kept in child care centers, nursery schools, or other facilities with young children.
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