WOOSTER, Ohio -- Chicks and ducklings may be cute and cuddly, but parents thinking about getting these critters for their kids for Easter should consider this ugly-duckling fact: they could carry Salmonella infection, an illness that is particularly dangerous to young children.
Jeff LeJeune, an Ohio State University microbiologist and head of the Food Animal Health Research Program(FAHRP), said parents and other caretakers need to be aware of the risks associated with handling young poultry or fowl and make sure everyone in the household follows the appropriate measures to avoid bacterial infection.
Those measures include avoiding contact with feces; keeping birds away from areas where food is stored, prepared or eaten; and washing hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling the animals.
FAHRP is part of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), the research arm of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
LeJeune also said it's recommended to keep children under 5 years of age from touching chicks and ducklings at all.
"Children under 5 are almost four times more likely to get Salmonella than older children and adults, while kids younger than 1 are 11 times more likely to become sick with this disease," said LeJeune, a national expert on animal-borne and foodborne bacterial infections. "Small children should avoid contact with these birds, as they tend to have frequent hand-to-mouth activity and are less likely to wash their hands adequately after touching the birds."
Between 2004 and 2011, 316 cases of Salmonella infection associated with contact with live young poultry, and affecting mostly children, were identified in 43 states. The median age of those who got sick was 4 years. About 23 percent of the patients were hospitalized and 55 percent had bloody diarrhea.
The multistate outbreak was traced back to a mail-order hatchery in the western U.S. Every year, 50 million live poultry are sold by mail-order hatcheries in the United States, generating $50 million to $70 million in sales. Within 24 hours after hatching, live young poultry are shipped in cardboard boxes via the postal service to agricultural feed stores or private residences around the country.
Overall, Salmonella infection causes an estimated 1 million illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations, and 370 deaths annually in the United States.
"People who choose to give Easter chicks or ducklings to their kids should know that many of these animals show no signs of being sick when they have Salmonella," LeJeune said. "These tiny birds will grow up rather quickly, so people should carefully consider what they are going to do with them before they make the decision to buy them or accept them as gifts."
In addition to young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are also more susceptible to Salmonella infection, LeJeune said.
Symptoms of Salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. Most people recover without treatment. However, in some cases the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. In these patients, the infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream and then to other parts of the body, increasing the risk of death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics.
People also need to be aware of the laws governing the sale of chicks. In Ohio, it is illegal to sell or give away poultry younger than four weeks of age in lots of less than six.
LeJeune added that doctors and other health care workers should be on the alert for illnesses caused by young birds during this time of the year.