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Department of Health warns of Salmonella outbreak in southeast PA linked to pet turtles

The majority of the cases affected children living in Philadelphia and Delaware counties. One person has died, and salmonellosis was one of the contributing factors.
Salmonella Enterica

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Wednesday issued a warning to residents about an outbreak of Salmonella "linked to small pet turtles purchased from roadside or street vendors," the agency said.

“While we continue to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of this investigation, the cause of these serious Salmonella cases has been linked to small pet turtles,” Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said in a press release. “The majority of the cases have occurred in children living in the southeastern part of the state.

"This is concerning, as Salmonella can be particularly serious for children. Anyone who has purchased a small pet turtle and became ill should contact their health care provider, their local health department or the Department of Health at 1-877-PA-HEALTH (1-877-724-3258).”

The department is currently investigating nine laboratory-confirmed Salmonella Typhimurium illnesses, Beam said. Eight of the cases have occurred in people living in Philadelphia or Delaware counties. Seven of the cases have occurred among children, ranging between 0 to 10 years old. 

One adult death has occurred, in which salmonellosis was one of the contributing factors, the department said.

Salmonellosis is a serious infection of the gastrointestinal tract. Diarrhea is the most common symptom, but other symptoms may include fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. 

In addition, salmonellosis can cause severe illness (e.g., bloodstream infection, bone and joint infection, meningitis) and can be particularly serious for young children, the elderly, and persons with weak immune systems, the department said. 

The Department of Health said it recommends that families with those at higher risk of invasive disease should avoid keeping turtles as pets.

Healthy turtles, as well as other reptiles, are known to carry Salmonella and intermittently shed the bacteria in their feces throughout their lifespan, according to the department. Humans can become infected with Salmonella through direct contact with turtles, turtle habitats (e.g., tank water), and through indirect contact by cross contamination of objects and surfaces, the department said.

Of the four people who reported the species of turtle in their home, all four reported the turtles were small red-eared sliders, according to the department. Of the four people who reported where they obtained their turtle, all four said they obtained their turtles from transient street or roadside vendors. 

Three of the reported vendors were located in Philadelphia, the department said.

For families that own turtles, it is important to take precautions to prevent the spread of Salmonella:

  • Always wash hands with soap and water after handling turtles and/or changing water in the tank;
  • Do not allow turtles in kitchen, dining room, or any area in which food is prepared and consumed. Also, do not allow turtles in bathroom sinks, tubs, or any area where infants are bathed;
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling turtles;
  • Do not kiss or snuggle turtles; and
  • Those at high risk of disease (e.g., children less than 5 years of age, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised persons) should avoid contact with turtles.

Anyone who came into contact with a turtle and became ill should contact their health care provider to assure appropriate specimens are collected and treatment is administered if necessary. 

Sick individuals, health care providers, or laboratories can contact the Pennsylvania Department of Health at 1-877-PA-HEALTH (1-877-724-3258) or can contact their local health department.

For more information about Salmonella and other illnesses, visit the Department of Health website at www.health.pa.gov or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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