Pet reptiles carry increased disease risk for children

TurtleAccording to research published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, young children have an increased risk of Salmonella infection from pet reptiles and amphibians including turtles, snakes and frogs.

While many believe Salmonella infections are caused only by contaminated food, Salmonella can also be transferred by handling these animals as most carry the bacteria in their intestinal tracts, and intermittently or continuously shed it in their feces. Previous studies have shown that 85% of all turtles, 77% of lizards, and 92% of snakes carry Salmonella.

Salmonella infections can also result from having contact with reptile or amphibian environments, including the water from their containers or aquariums where they live. The number of families owning reptiles has significantly increased in recent years, and while they may not be as time-consuming as some other pets, researchers stress that parents should be aware of the hidden dangers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since 2006, reports of 11 multistate outbreaks, including six ongoing outbreaks, and more than 535 cases of laboratory-confirmed Salmonella infections are linked to contact with small turtles and their habitats. These illnesses resulted in about 85 hospitalizations and one death. Because many people with salmonellosis (the illness caused by Salmonella) do not seek medical care or are not tested, it is estimated that 16 times as many illnesses occurred than were reported.

The article also states that researchers in the United Kingdom found that in the cases of salmonellosis in children, those that were exposed to reptiles were more severe, with these children being 2.5 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for treatment than non-reptile associated (non-RAS) cases. In fact, the study showed that 50% of children under one-year-old with reptile-associated cases of salmonellosisneeded to be hospitalized. This is a very large number in comparison to the 19% of non-reptile-associated Salmonella-infected children of the same age.

The authors also note that Salmonella carried by reptiles tends to be different from those that cause food poisoning and that further work is required to inform the public of the potential health risks especially to young children.

Some tips offered by the CDC to reduce the risk of illness from turtles and other reptiles include:

1. Don’t buy small turtles from street vendors, websites, pet stores, or other sources.

2. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water immediately after touching a reptile or anything in the area where they live and roam. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available. Adults should always supervise handwashing for young children.

3. Don’t let young children handle or touch reptiles or anything in the area where they live and roam, including water from containers or tanks.

4. Keep reptiles out of homes with young children or people with weakened immune systems.

5. Reptiles should not be kept in child care centers, nursery schools, or other facilities with young children.

6. Don’t touch your mouth after handling reptiles and do not eat or drink around these animals.

7. Don’t let reptiles roam freely throughout the house or in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored, such as kitchens, pantries, or outdoor patios.

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