“Stop hugging, snuggling, and kissing chickens”. Yes, you read that correctly. It is advice from the CDC directly in response to the U.S. outbreak of human Salmonellosis linked to keeping live poultry in backyard flocks. This current outbreak has hit 48 states, and infected at least 790 people thus far. It began in January 2017 and is still ongoing.
It is not one outbreak, but 10 separate ones that are epi-linked with each other via live poultry, and chicks and ducklings from hatcheries. The idea of having backyard chickens is having a rebirth of sorts. People want organic food and to know where their food comes from these days. The eggs are fresh and taking care of chickens is something for the kids to take part in. From 2005-2014 there were 4 outbreaks a year. Six out of ten cases were exposed to baby chicks and this exposure happened within the home- living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Half of the cases reported they snuggled the baby chicks.
Salmonellosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it is spread from animals to people. It is considered a foodborne disease because it is predominately caused by contaminated food (e.g. raw chicken and raw eggs). The clinical picture of Salmonellosis is a sudden onset of diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting (1). These symptoms may be more severe in children under 5 years old, people who are immune-compromised, and people over age 65.
The reservoir of Salmonella bacteria are domestic and wild animals who are carriers of this bacteria, especially chicks (1). This means that they can carry and transmit Salmonella bacteria without being sick themselves. The bacteria is simply shed in their fecal material which may get on their fur, feather, habitat, etc. It is important to always wash your hands properly after handling chickens and maybe think twice about kissing these cute little creatures. Adults should supervise handwashing of children to make sure it is done properly. If soap and water is not available right away, the use of hand sanitizer should be used. Hand washing should always come after handling the animals, cleaning their living areas, feeding, and cleaning anything in their habitat.
When we hear about illness from Salmonella bacteria, the usual suspect is raw chicken/ eggs. But what may not be well known is that many animals can transmit Salmonella from their fecal matter to you, not just chickens. Animals such as (6):
- Reptiles (turtles, lizards, and snakes) turtles high risk
- Amphibians (frogs and toads) high risk
- Poultry (chicks, chickens, ducklings, ducks, geese, and turkeys)
- Other birds (parakeets, parrots, and wild birds)
- Rodents (mice, rats, hamsters, and guinea pigs)
- Other small mammals (hedgehogs)
- Farm animals (goats, calves, cows, sheep, and pigs)
Can also transmit Salmonella. It is always recommended that after touching or playing with these animals hand washing with soap and water follow.
Reptiles that are kept as pets can also pose a high risk for transmission of Salmonella. They may appear to look clean, but bacteria may not be visible. It is important that reptiles have their own habitat to live in, and those caring for these pets wash their hands properly after holding them or cleaning their living space. Reptiles should be kept out of homes with children under 5 years, people with compromised immune systems, and elderly adults as these groups are most at risk of infection.
Eggs are an economical and high protein food. Eggs are a complete protein meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids that our bodies need. The consensus on whether they are good or bad for your health will probably never reach a unanimous decision, but there are some safety measures to keep in mind when using eggs. Eggs need to be kept refrigerated and any cracked or visibly dirty eggs discarded. Even eggs that appear clean may have been contaminated with Salmonella bacteria before the shell forms. So even if they look clean you have to take a few precautions. Do not eat raw eggs. Do not let raw egg or egg product contaminate countertops, kitchen tools, other prepared foods, or your hands. Raw egg should be cleaned up with soap and water. Eggs need to be cooked until the yolk and white are firm. If your recipe calls for raw or undercooked eggs, there are pasteurized egg products on the market which are completely safe to use instead.
Reducing your risk of Salmonella infection is simple. Wash hands with soap and water after playing with pets or touching animals in general. Avoid eating raw chicken or egg products. And avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen by cleaning surfaces with soap and water that may have come into contact with raw foods.
- Control of Communicable Diseases Manual 20th Edition pg. 532-539.
About the Author
Lisa A. Mack MS, MPH is an Epidemiologist and Communicable Disease Investigator. In addition, she is a certified HIV counselor and tester in a county sexually transmitted disease (STD) clinic. She received a Master of Science degree (Epidemiology) from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, School of Public Health and a Master of Public Health degree (Epidemiology) from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health.
Her current research interest is investigating the antibacterial properties of essential oils to be used in treating multidrug resistant bacteria (MRSA, MSSA, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, etc.) in the healthcare setting. She loves germs, diseases, public health, educating & empowering people about their health and well-being. Public Health Rocks!