37 sick from Salmonella in turtles

Turtles in the 1960s and 1970s were inexpensive, popular, and low maintenance pets, with an array of groovy pre-molded plastic housing designs to choose from. Invariably they would escape, only to be found days later behind the couch along with the skeleton of the class bunny my younger sister brought home from kindergarten one weekend.

Maybe I got sick from my turtle.

Maybe I picked up my turtle, rolled around on the carpet with it, pet it a bit, and then stuck my finger in my mouth. Maybe in my emotionally vacant adolescence I kissed my turtle. Who can remember?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports there are now – in yet another turtle outbreak – 37 people sick with Salmonella Agbeni in 13 states.

Illnesses started on dates ranging from March 1, 2017 to August 3, 2017

Of 33 people with available information, 16 have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

Twelve (32%) ill people are children 5 years of age or younger.

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.

In interviews, ill people answered questions about contact with animals during the week before becoming ill. Fifteen (45%) of the 33 people interviewed reported contact with turtles or their environments, such as water from a turtle habitat, before getting sick.

In interviews with 9 ill people about where their turtles came from, 6 reported buying a turtle from a flea market or street vendor, or receiving the turtle as a gift.

In 2015, state and local health officials collected samples from turtles at a street vendor. Whole genome sequencing showed that the Salmonella Agbeni isolated from ill people in this outbreak is closely related genetically to the Salmonella Agbeni isolates from turtles. This close genetic relationship means that people in this outbreak are more likely to share a common source of infection.

Do not buy small turtles as pets or give them as gifts.

Since 1975, the FDA has banned selling and distributing turtles with shells less than 4 inches long as pets because they are often linked to Salmonella infections, especially in young children.

All turtles, regardless of size, can carry Salmonella bacteria even if they look healthy and clean. These outbreaks are a reminder to follow simple steps to enjoy pet reptiles and keep your family healthy.

This outbreak is expected to continue since consumers might be unaware of the risk of Salmonella infection from small turtles. If properly cared for, turtles have a long-life expectancy.