37 people nationwide contract infection linked to turtles

Image of turtle

Dozens of people in 13 states have contracted Salmonella from pet turtles. Source

Because turtles are cool.

Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.

The Center for Disease Control is investigating salmonella outbreaks in people from 13 states linked to contact with pet turtles. Almost half of those infected have been hospitalized, which is "a little bit higher than we typically see", says Megin Nichols, a CDC veterinarian who investigates these kind of outbreaks.

Since 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned selling and distributing turtles with shells less than four inches long as pets because they are often linked to salmonella infections, especially in young children.

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Reptiles are responsible for more than 70,000 cases of salmonellosis each year, the CDC estimates.

Epidemiologic and laboratory findings link the outbreak of human Salmonella Agbeni infections to contact with turtles or their environments, such as water from a turtle habitat.

Most people infected with the Salmonella bacteria develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps within 12 to 72 hours. For those who do come into contact with small turtles, handwashing is the best way to prevent illness.

If all of this sounds achingly familiar, it is.

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On Tuesday, the agency said 13 states are now investigating outbreaks of salmonella linked to contact with the hard-shelled reptiles. That investigation got started when two girls reported illness after swimming with turtles in a backyard pool. Whole genome sequencing showed that the Salmonella Agbeni isolated from ill people in this outbreak is closely related genetically to the Salmonella Agbeni isolated from turtles. Some 28 percent of the people sickened had to go to the hospital. They warn to only buy turtles at reputable pet stores. Illnesses started on dates ranging from March 1 to August 3. Otherwise, "hundreds of thousands of people could be sick", she says.

Some of the patients said they bought turtles from street vendors or markets or received them as gifts, the CDC said.

Among other things, the CDC advises that people wash their hands thoroughly after handling reptiles and amphibians and anything in the areas where they live or roam.

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