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Feds probe multi-state salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard poultry

Federal health officials are probing several multi-state outbreaks of salmonella infections linked to backyard poultry, saying more than 200 Americans have been stricken so far this year, with one death reported.

Already in vogue in parts of the U.S., the earthy hobby of raising backyard flocks grew even more popular during the pandemic, as Americans stuck at home set up coops with an eye on fresh eggs and animal companionship. But such efforts at small-time farming can come at a cost.

A total of 219 illnesses have been reported across 38 states, including 27 hospitalizations and one fatality in Tennessee, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. The true count is likely much higher, as many individuals recover without seeking medical care, the agency noted. 

Salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard flocks occur annually and coincide with increased purchases of baby chicks, starting in the spring, the CDC stated. Last year, 1,135 Americans were sickened from contact with backyard poultry, which includes chickens, hens, roosters and turkeys. Of those who fell ill, 1 in 4 were children younger than 5 years old. 

While most people experience diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps and recover without treatment after four to seven days, younger and older individuals, as well as those with weakened immune systems, may experience more severe illness.

Tips for avoiding illness

Those with or considering backyard poultry would be wise to check out the CDC's guidelines. They include advising against eating or drinking while near an outside flock, and always washing your hands with soap and running water after touching birds. Families with young children should be especially mindful, as kids are often eager to touch birds with hands they often then put in their mouths.

Many of those interviewed in outbreaks are first-time poultry owners unaware the animals can carry germs, according to the CDC. There's also a mistaken notion that if an animal is healthy, it can't carry salmonella; in reality, chickens can carry salmonella in their gut without it harming them.

Another myth is that all chickens have salmonella, a falsehood that prompts people to feed the animals antibiotics. That can cause more virulent strains of salmonella bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, according to the agency.

Unrelated to the salmonella outbreaks, avian influenza has been confirmed in 183 backyard flocks, leading to the destruction of tens of thousands of home-produced birds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 

The public health risk from bird flu is considered low, with one person testing positive earlier this year after working with poultry in Colorado, the CDC said in April. The patient has since recovered, it noted.  

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