Springtime and the approaching Easter holiday are causing concern among health officials.
This is the time of year people tend to buy chicks and ducklings for their backyard flocks. As a result, the number of people who become infected with salmonella spikes.
“While it’s fun for families to get baby birds, the bacteria they shed can make people sick,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, Washington health officer, in a news release. “This is especially true for young children, who account for the largest proportion of live poultry-related salmonella cases.”
Last year, 19 people in Washington were part of a multistate outbreak of salmonella associated with handling live poultry. Thirteen of the cases involved children younger than 10.
One of those children was Liz Wilson of Yacolt.
Liz, who was 3 at the time, became infected with salmonella in April 2013 after her family purchased nine chicks and two ducklings from a local farm store.
The family, which includes nine kids ranging in age from 4 to 16, purchased the chicks to raise for eggs, said Liz’s mother, Denise Kaski. Her husband, David Kaski, had chickens in the past and knew what it took to raise the birds, but they weren’t aware of the salmonella risk, Denise Kaski said.
“I wasn’t really informed,” she said.
Salmonella is a bacterial infection spread by fecal-oral transmission. People are most often infected by eating or drinking contaminated food or water or through contact with infected people or animals.
Live animals can carry and transmit the bacteria several different ways.
When people touch the animals or their habitats, they can get the salmonella bacteria on their hands. Without a thorough hand-washing with soap and water, that bacteria can be transferred to food, other surfaces or anything the person touches, including their own mouths. Children who play with the animals may try to cuddle and kiss the small critters, giving the bacteria a direct path to infection.
“The first thing a very small child is going to want to do is give these cute little chickies a little kiss,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health director and health officer. “That’s not a good thing to do.”
Chicks and ducklings pick up the bacteria from other birds and carry the bacteria in their intestines, he said.
“Not every chicken carries salmonella, but a lot of them do,” Melnick said. “And there is no way to tell if a chick is free from salmonella. … You should handle or deal with these animals as if they all have it.”
Anyone can become infected with salmonella, but young children, elderly adults and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for severe illness.
Liz Wilson has a weakened immune system. She has Down syndrome and a rare heart defect. Her white blood cell counts are always low, Kaski said.
While Liz never held the chicks, they were kept in a crate inside the home at night. Liz may have touched the crate, and some of her siblings handled the small birds, Kaski said.
On April 4, 2013, about a week after the family brought the chicks home, Liz became lethargic, started vomiting, had bloody diarrhea and wouldn’t eat. She couldn’t even keep down what she was given through a feeding tube that is used to supplement her diet, Kaski said.
Liz was taken by ambulance to Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland. As doctors ran tests, Kaski started Googling Liz’s symptoms. She came across information about salmonella and told Liz’s doctor the family recently purchased chicks.
Liz’s doctor put her on a strong antibiotic while awaiting test results that would later confirm the infection. Liz has artificial heart valves, and doctors worried the infection would spread into her heart and blood, Kaski said.
“For the first four days, we didn’t know how it was going to work,” Kaski said. They weren’t sure if the infection had already spread.
“I just want my daughter to live,” she remembered thinking.
After eight days in the hospital, Liz was well enough to return home, Kaski said. Nobody else in the home became ill.
Today, Liz is a feisty 4-year-old. She’s adventurous, tumbling on couches and climbing on everything she can. And she spends much of her days playing with her dog, Lucy.
Liz has no lasting effects from the infection, but Kaski knows the situation could have been worse. The family got rid of the chickens, and Kaski warns others about salmonella and the importance of hand-washing.
“I don’t want anybody else to have to get sick like that,” she said.
Melnick advises against chicks as pets for young children. And if people want to raise chickens in their backyard for eggs, Melnick said vigilant hand-washing is important for preventing salmonella infection.
“I know chicks are cute, everybody loves them, and ducklings are cute, but why risk something as serious as this?” he said.