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Reptile Pets May Pose Salmonella Risk

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Families who keep reptiles as pets may inadvertently be putting young children in the household at risk of acquiring a rare form of salmonella infection, according to the Health Protection Agency.

A poster exhibit at the Health Protection Agency’s annual conference at the University of Warwick explains that an increase in human cases of Salmonella enterica sub species arizonae (Arizona), which can sometimes be fatal, has recently been noted by the Salmonella Reference Laboratory for England and Wales.

Dr. Tansy Peters, an expert from the Agency’s Laboratory of Enteric Pathogens, said: “Salmonella Arizona is commonly found in the gut of reptiles, with snakes being the largest reservoir of infection.

“Although it is comparatively rare in humans, a study of samples submitted to our laboratory for testing from January 1998 to December 2007 shows that there has been a significant increase in both numerical and percentage terms that may be a reflection of the increased popularity of reptiles as pets.”

In 1998, 30 human cases of Salmonella Arizona were recorded out of 23,134 non-typhoidal salmonellas in England and Wales (0.13%). In 2007, 55 human Arizonas were noted out of 11,943 non-typhoidal salmonellas (0.46%).

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“This is a very worrying trend and infants and young children with their immature immune systems and weaker gastric acids are disproportionately affected. We even find cases in breast and formula fed infants and it is unlikely that they acquired their infection from a source other than indirectly, via the parents, from the family’s pet reptile,” Dr. Peters said.

“Reptiles shed salmonella in their faeces and carry it on their skin and the public health implications of this inside the home should not be underestimated.”

The Agency’s advice is:

* Families with young children should be aware of the health risks associated with having a reptile as a family pet.

* Pet shop owners should advise their customers of potential risks associated with reptile ownership.

* Good hand hygiene practices should be employed at all times when handling and looking after any pet. This means that anyone handling a reptile or an object that has been in contact with a reptile should wash their hands thoroughly immediately afterwards.

* Hand-washing after touching a reptile is particularly important before touching or feeding a baby or young child, as this could pose a risk to the infant.