Pet turtles pose Salmonella risk: CDC

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Salmonella from a pet turtle killed a four-week-old baby earlier this year in a case that showed the reptiles are not safe for children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

The CDC expressed concern that sales of baby turtles were on the increase, despite the 1975 federal “Four-Inch Law” that forbids the sale of turtles with a carapace length of less than four 4 inches.

Small baby turtles were once popular pets across the United States until the Food and Drug Administration determined they were causing many cases of serious illness among children.

“Salmonella can be transmitted to humans by direct or indirect contact with a turtle or its feces. No reliable methods are available to guarantee that a turtle is free of Salmonella. Most turtles are colonized with Salmonella and shed the bacteria intermittently in their feces,” the CDC said in its weekly report on death and disease.

Salmonella illness remains a major public health problem in the United States, with an estimated 1.4 million nontyphoidal human Salmonella infections annually, resulting in about 15,000 hospitalizations and 400 deaths, the report said.

The baby was taken to a Florida emergency room with fever and septic shock and died on March 1 despite treatment with antibiotics.

Tests on bacteria taken from the baby showed it matched a strain found in a turtle given to the infant’s family by a friend. Animals that are colonized with bacteria are not ill but carry the microbes.

The CDC tracked down 15 other people infected with similar-looking strains of Salmonella in 2006 and 2007 and found 80 percent of them had direct or indirect contact with a turtle in the week before they became ill.

“These cases illustrate that small turtles remain a source of human Salmonella infections,” the CDC said.

“Although ongoing public education measures aimed at preventing reptile-acquired Salmonella infections are helpful, prohibiting the sale of small turtles likely remains the most effective public health action to prevent turtle-associated salmonellosis.”

Salmonella can cause stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea.

If it spreads to the blood, it can cause a severe illness that can kill the very young, the very old and those with damaged immune systems such as AIDS or cancer patients.