By: Candess Zona-Mendola

There are currently 8 outbreaks of Salmonella in the United States. These are all happening at the exact same time. Over 370 have confirmed illnesses linked to these outbreaks and over 70 people have been hospitalized. Almost all 50 states have one or more illnesses that have been identified. But what could have caused such a massive scattering of infections? The answer may surprise you. These outbreaks have all been linked to live poultry – in particular backyard flocks. In fact, the outbreaks now appear to be growing, and is on track to be bigger that the outbreaks related to live birds last year.

An Interview with CDC’s Dr. Megin Nichols

Last week, Unsafefoods had the immense pleasure of sitting down with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Dr. Megin Nichols. Dr. Nichols is the CDC’s a Lead in the Enteric Zoonoses Activity – meaning she focuses her work on multistate outbreaks of Salmonella and E.coli linked to animal exposure. As a veterinarian, Dr. Nichols knows firsthand the proper care and raising of domesticated animals. She is especially knowledgeable about chickens, ducks, and other live poultry.

During the interview with Dr. Nichols, expressed concern to her about the current outbreaks and what they mean for children. Dr. Nichols indeed expressed concern over the number of ill children in this year’s outbreaks and offered some wonderful advice for parents all across the United States.

“One of the things you can do is to teach children that animals, like chicken and ducks, live outside in their coops and humans live inside. These are animals, not toys. That means squeezing, kissing, and hugging them transfers bacteria – which puts families more at risk for Salmonella outbreaks.”

That does not mean that having a chicken for a pet is a bad idea. In fact, with supervised age-appropriate activities, like collecting eggs, feeding chickens, and cleaning the coops, children can not only learn about caring for animals, but bonding with them as well. Adults should be quick to remind children to maintain good hygienic habits like change shoes, wash hands, and change clothes after exposure to live poultry. Dr. Nichols recommends parents do some research first before they purchase a pet. In families where there are children under 5 years, older adults, or those with weakened immune systems, chickens and reptiles may not be the best pets because they can carry Salmonella and the risk of serious infections for these groups of people is higher.

If you decide a chicken is a good pet for your family, there are great ways to prepare and teach your children about them before the cute chicks come home. Dr. Nichols offered some additional encouragement for families who are the right fit to have live birds. She commented, “anytime an animal is brought home is a great educational opportunity to care for animals. Getting educational books on them and on how to care for them is a good idea.”

The Myths of Salmonella and Backyard Flocks

We asked Dr. Nichols one of the concerns she has with backyard flocks. She mentioned that, all too often, parents believe that exposing their children to live poultry and Salmonella bacteria, will allow their children to develop an immunity to the infection. Dr. Nichols commented, “I would like to dispel the myth that by allowing a child into a chicken coop to get Salmonella, it naturally immunizes them and they are protected against the germ. That is not the case with Salmonella.” Dr. Nichols further noted that this is because there are so many different types and strains of Salmonella, and chickens can carry various strains. Just because someone is immune to one strain, they aren’t immune to all. Most people, especially young children, can become re-infected with Salmonella multiple times. Parents should be cautious of this as they supervise their children with live poultry.

Dr. Nichols took this immunity myth a step further. “We at the CDC sometimes hear from people that it is not a big deal to get Salmonella because they are usually healthy,” she says. There is a problem with this belief. Sometimes people do not realize that a bacterium that may not be serious in a healthy adult, may be severe or even deadly in a member of the high risk group (like a child). The CDC takes these infections seriously, as all have the ability to infect high risk individuals.

There is another myth as well – that someone can “rid” their birds of Salmonella. This is actually a misnomer. Dr. Nichols offered us more clarification on this myth.

“Is it a common misconception that when chickens have Salmonella, they are sick. Poultry actually carry Salmonella in their gut, and they are healthy. When they poop, it can get on their feet and beaks, and spread throughout their coop and onto other surfaces. When people handle chickens and don’t wash their hands, they can become ill. Using antibiotics to rid chickens of Salmonella can create resistance to antibiotics and if used inappropriately can leave antibiotic residues in eggs and meat.

This is why practicing good hand washing and educating yourself and your children is so important for the health and well-being of birds and people.”

Resources are Available for Everyone

These outbreaks and Salmonella infections are preventable. There are many resources out there for anyone who wants to educate themselves on the proper care of live poultry and even how to prevent Salmonella infections. The CDC maintains a general website for the current outbreaks regarding live poultry here for further information on the types of Salmonella involved and the chronology of the illnesses. There is also a Frequently Asked Questions page for anyone who wants a quick and easy resource to infections from live animals here.

But did you know the CDC offers great resources on the care and handling of live poultry? Whether you plan to (or are currently) raising chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, or other backyard birds, the CDC has you covered here.

An ounce of prevention can do wonders for our country. We at UnsafeFoods wish you the best of luck, and fun, with your backyard flock. Just remember, it is best to keep the chicken in its coop and off of the sofa.