Preschool-aged children at high risk of salmonella from reptiles

August 31, 2004

Reptiles can make great pets--they're quiet and they don't leave fur on the furniture and floors. However, whether wild-caught or store-bought, reptiles often carry salmonella. These bacteria can cause diarrhea, and young children are at particular risk, according to a study in the September 1 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, now available online.

Diet, susceptibility, and the lower amount of bacteria needed to infect a child may all contribute to the likelihood of children less than five years old contracting salmonella from handling lizards, snakes and turtles. Young children are also more likely than their older peers to develop serious--and possibly fatal--complications from the infection.

Michigan researchers found that nearly 12 percent of salmonellosis cases in children up to age five were reptile-associated, according to reports received by the Michigan Department of Community Health between January 2001 and June 2003. Due to concerns about salmonella infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that reptiles not be kept in homes with people whose immune systems are impaired or homes with children under age five.

If reptiles are present in the home or other areas where a young child is present, adults need to practice "good hand-washing in between handling the reptile and then coming in contact with the child," said lead author Dr. Eden Wells of the University of Michigan. If children are allowed to handle reptiles, "teach the children to wash their hands thoroughly afterward," she said, adding that reptile owners need to keep their pets' enclosures clean and not allow reptiles to roam freely in the house if small children might crawl through the same areas. The best prevention, however, is to follow the CDC's recommendations to keep reptiles out of households with at-risk people, including removing reptiles from homes prior to the birth of a child.

Although the researchers specifically studied occurrences of salmonella in Michigan children, Dr. Wells believes the results are probably similar in other states with comparable percentages of pet snakes, lizards and turtles. "Reptile ownership is a significant risk for salmonellosis," said Dr. Wells. "Young children are susceptible to this particular infection, and reptile ownership seems to be highly associated with this infection."

Further information on reptile-associated salmonellosis is available on the CDC web site at http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/animals/reptiles.htm.
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Founded in 1979, Clinical Infectious Diseases publishes clinical articles twice monthly in a variety of areas of infectious disease, and is one of the most highly regarded journals in this specialty. It is published under the auspices of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). Based in Alexandria, Virginia, IDSA is a professional society representing more than 7,500 physicians and scientists who specialize in infectious diseases. For more information, visit www.idsociety.org.

Infectious Diseases Society of America

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