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News / Health / Clark County Health

Is there a menace clucking in your backyard?

The same creature that produces fresh eggs can also transmit salmonella

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter
Published: March 5, 2018, 6:00am

Backyard chickens are great for fresh eggs, but, health officials warn, they’re also a great conduit for illness. As the number of backyard poultry flocks increases, so do the number of people contracting salmonella from their feathered friends.

Last year in the U.S., there were more salmonella cases linked to backyard poultry than ever recorded. Federal health officials confirmed 1,120 cases of salmonella in 48 states in a live poultry outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Washington, health officials connected 23 cases to the national outbreak. That’s more than double the number of cases tied to backyard poultry in the previous two years combined, according to the state Department of Health.

While only one local case of illness was linked to the national outbreak, Clark County had 11 cases of salmonella in 2017 that health officials tied to live poultry. That accounts for 16 percent of all local salmonella cases. And of those 11 people sickened, four were hospitalized, said Dr. Alan Melnick, county health officer and Clark County Public Health director.

Did You Know?

• Salmonella is most often spread through foodborne or person-to-person transmission.

• Someone eating undercooked poultry or eggs, for example, is at risk of contracting salmonella. Someone can also be exposed through cross-contamination of food, such as using the same cutting board for raw chicken and fresh vegetables or allowing raw chicken juice to drip into a bowl of salad in the refrigerator.

• Poor hand hygiene after using the bathroom, or traveling to a country with poor sanitation, contributes to person-to-person transmission of the bacteria.

“Birds, including chickens, they’re carriers of salmonella bacteria,” Melnick said.

Salmonella bacteria live in the intestines of infected people and animals and is shed through feces. With chickens, the feces can get into their feathers. Then, Melnick said, people interact with their chickens and, without washing their hands, touch food or their mouths.

“It’s fecal-oral transmission, from the feces to the mouth, and microscopic amounts will do it,” he said.

Some people with salmonella develop no symptoms. Those who do show symptoms experience diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps between 12 and 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and people tend to recover on their own without medication, according to the CDC. Even after a person recovers from salmonella infection, they can carry the bacteria in their stool for some time, Melnick said.

Young children, older adults and those with compromised immune systems are at risk for complications, such as infection in the bloodstream, he said. Young children are especially at risk because they have more frequent hand-to-mouth contact than adults, according to state health officials.

Because it’s impossible to know which birds are infected with salmonella based on their appearance — birds with salmonella won’t appear sick — health officials recommend precautions when handling any backyard poultry.

Health officials urge people — especially parents with young children — to have good hygiene after handling chickens. Hands should be washed with soap and water right after touching live poultry or anything in the areas where chickens live and roam. And live poultry should not be allowed in family living spaces, according to the state health department.

Health officials also warn against allowing kids to snuggle or kiss chickens, and Melnick advises against purchasing chicks or ducklings as pets for young children.

“Easter is coming,” he said. “Do not give ducklings and chicks as Easter presents.”

Columbian Health Reporter