Pet Reptiles May Increase Children’s Salmonella Poisoning Risk

Young children may be at higher risk of contracting Salmonella poisoning if they have a pet reptile in the house, according to the findings of new research. 

In a study published in the medical journal Archives of Disease in Childhood on December 22, researchers from the U.K. found that one in four children under the age of 5 years old will be infected with Salmonella contracted from a reptile kept as a pet.

Researchers reviewed data reported to public health authorities involving children under 5 years of age in the southwest of the U.K. from January 2010 through December 2013, finding a total of 175 cases of Salmonella, with nearly 30% of them involving contact with a reptile.

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Several strains of Salmonella were reported, but those associated with reptiles are different from those seen with food poisoning, and often have more severe symptoms.

Younger children were more likely to develop reptile-associated salmonellosis compared to other Salmonella infections, which affect older children mostly. In addition, these children were more likely to be hospitalized and have severe infections that affected the brain and blood.

The average age of children infected with reptile-associated salmonellosis was 6 months old. Comparatively, children infected with other forms of salmonella were older than one year.

Dr. Dan Murphy, of the Royal Cornwall Hospital in the United Kingdom, and his team of researchers examined health records to determine whether infected children were exposed to pet reptiles, like lizards, iguanas, turtles and snakes, and whether those exposures and illnesses resulted in more serious symptoms.

Children with reptile-associated Salmonella were 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized and experience invasive diseases, like bacteraemia, meningitis and colitis.

More Dangerous Than Food Poisoning Strains

Salmonella is often linked with food poisoning and typically causes symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Reptile-associated Salmonella can cause even more serious problems, including blood poisoning, meningitis and bone infection.

Reptile-associated Salmonella is transferred to young children from reptilian pets that can excrete the bacteria from their guts. This poses a problem for young children who have a habit of putting items and fingers in their mouth regularly, especially if contaminated by Salmonella.

Children less than a year old are at high risk of indirect transmission, where no direct contact with a reptile is needed for infection.

Researchers recommend frequent hand washing after contact with iguanas, turtles and other reptiles. They also warn parents to consider waiting to get reptiles as a pet until children are older and past the oral exploration phase and are old enough to wash their own hands.

They also warn parents to restrict reptile access to areas where young children often play and avoiding reasonable caution if reptiles remain a pet in the household and young children and infants are also present.

More than 1.2 million Americans are infected with Salmonella each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are especially at risk.

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