NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A small turtle might seem like the ideal pet but health officials are warning people that turtles can damage your health with two girls made sick from salmonella after swimming with their pets in a backyard pool.
A report in the journal Pediatrics outlines the largest U.S. salmonella outbreak blamed on turtles that occurred between May 2007 and January 2008 and made 107 people in 34 states sick, including the two girls who swam with turtles.
Despite a long-standing federal ban on the sale of small turtles, the reptiles continue to be sold in the United States and can make owners, usually young children, sick with salmonella.
"In this outbreak, 59 percent of patients were 10 years of age or younger, and 33 percent of all patients interviewed were hospitalized," said researcher Dr. Julie Harris, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.
"Most people are unaware of the dangers of turtles as pets ... we observed a strong association between turtle exposure and salmonella infections in this outbreak."
Forty-seven of 78 patients interviewed -- or 60 percent -- reported contact with turtles during the week prior to their becoming sick.
Turtles and other reptiles are well-known reservoirs for salmonella, and while the sale and distribution of small turtles -- measuring less than 4 inches -- was officially outlawed in the United States in 1975, cases of turtle-associated salmonella infection continue to occur. Harris told Reuters Health that salmonella is a "serious infection," which can lead to hospitalization and, in some cases, death.
"Children are more susceptible than adults, and often have more complications from infection," she added.
Small turtles remain available to the public illegally from various sources, including pet shops, flea markets, street vendors, and the Internet.
But Harris said don't be fooled by sellers.
"No one has succeeded in making a salmonella-free turtle," she said.
"Even if a turtle is born without Salmonella, because Salmonella exists in many places in the environment, it is difficult if not impossible to keep a turtle free of salmonella."
Reporting by Megan Brooks from Reuters Health, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith