A salmonella outbreak that sickened and resulted in the hospitalization of children in 33 states has been traced back to the illegal sale of tiny pet turtles, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned today.
At least 103 cases have been reported since May 2007, and many of those infected were children under the age of 10, the CDC said.
"Although most reptiles carry salmonella, small turtles are likely to be handled differently than other reptiles," according to the report. "[They] thus carry a greater risk of transmitting salmonella to children."
The report cited children who handled the turtles, kissed them, even putting the reptiles in their mouths.
While no deaths have been reported so far, the infection has led to at least 24 children being hospitalized in many cases, and symptoms have included bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting.
The turtles' salmonella is so contagious that in August 2007, two girls fell ill after swimming in a pool where two pet turtles had also been permitted to swim. One of the girls, 13 years old, was sick for seven days and her 15-year-old friend was hospitalized for eight days due to acute renal failure. Both tested positive for salmonella.
In another case, two children became sick after visiting the home of their babysitter who owned baby turtles.
The sale of small turtles -- categorized as spanning less than 4 inches -- was prohibited in 1975 after a study in New Jersey showed that small pet turtles were responsible for close to 23 percent of salmonella infections in children, according to the report.
But small pet turtles are still widely available in the United States. The CDC estimated that between 2001 and 2006 the number of turtles kept as pets in the country increased by 86 percent to almost 2 million turtles. The agency suspects this is because the turtles are still permitted for use in scientific, educational or exhibition purposes.
In the majority of the cases examined by the CDC, turtle owners said they had bought their turtles at pet stores, while others had turned to flea markets and the Internet.
Despite this, the CDC still believes the best way to prevent turtle-associated infections is to continue to prohibit the sale and distribution of the small reptiles.