Handling Baby Chicks, Ducklings Poses Health Risk

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
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Those cute little yellow balls of down – chicks and ducklings -- can be a great attraction for children this time of year, but they can also be a source of illness, so it's important for those who handle them to take steps to prevent infection, including good hand hygiene, state health officials say.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) identified 14 cases of salmonellosis (illness due to Salmonella infection) last year that were associated with handling chicks or ducklings. One person handled chicks in an Easter display; the remaining cases were in people who purchased chicks and ducklings at a variety of poultry distributors throughout the state to raise in backyard flocks. All of the infections were caused by Salmonella Montevideo, which has previously been associated with chick contact.

The cases occurred from late March through July 2008 and ranged in age from 1 month to 70 years. Three of those who became ill were hospitalized for 1 to 3 days. While the cases shared the same type of Salmonella, any chick or duck can carry Salmonella of a variety of different types, according to Dr. Joni Scheftel, State Public Health Veterinarian at MDH.

"Young children are especially at risk and are also more likely to develop serious complications from Salmonella infections. Last year, 9 of 14 chick-associated Salmonella cases in Minnesota were in children less than 12 years-of-age. Four of the children were less than one year of age and did not have direct contact with chicks or ducklings themselves, but their parents reported having contact with poultry or their environments."

Salmonella is a type of bacteria that is carried in the intestines of animals and can be shed into the environment. People typically become infected after eating contaminated foods or from contact with animals or their environments. Chicks, ducklings, and other poultry are a recognized source of Salmonella, especially for children. Both healthy and sick appearing birds may be shedding Salmonella, and even though a bird looks clean, it may still have microscopic amounts of germs on its feathers or feet.

People get Salmonella from poultry by hand to mouth contact. Usually this happens when people handle birds or things in their environment and then accidentally touch their mouths or forget to wash their hands before eating or drinking.

Salmonella can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Approximately 20 percent of cases reported to MDH are hospitalized. Most people develop symptoms one to three days after being exposed to Salmonella, and recover in about a week. It's important for people to be aware that if they've had or are having diarrhea with fever and have had contact with chicks or ducks, they should consult their health care provider.

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Some people are more susceptible to infection and will have more severe disease. These people include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people on chemotherapy, diabetics, and others with weakened immune systems.

Whether you raise chicks or ducklings as a source of food or keep them as pets, follow these steps to protect yourself and your family from illness:

* Do not let children less than 5 years of age handle poultry.

* Supervise older children when handling poultry and ensure they wash their hands afterwards.

* Do not nuzzle or kiss chicks, ducklings or other poultry.

* Do not eat or drink around poultry or their living areas.

* Keep poultry outside and especially out of areas where food is prepared.

* Do not wash the birds' food and water dishes in the kitchen sink.

* Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling poultry or anything in their environment.

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