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News / Health / Health Wire

Salmonella, ‘parrot fever’ linked to pets sold at Pasco Flea Market. 2 people fell ill

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: November 9, 2023, 7:28am

YAKIMA — The Benton Franklin Health District is warning customers of the Pasco Flea Market that animals purchased there may have carried bacterial infections that made people sick.

One person who bought a turtle and another who may have come in contact with a turtle or the bacteria it spread there were infected with salmonella.

Laboratory tests showed that the purchased turtle and the two people who fell ill matched the salmonella strain in a national outbreak that has sickened at least 59 people.

“Turtles can look healthy and clean, but they can still carry germs,” said JoDee Peyton, supervisor and environmental public health expert at the Tri-Cities-based health district.

In addition, a cockatiel purchased at the flea market tested positive for avian chlamydiosis, sometimes called “parrot fever.”

It is a bacterial infection that can cause the illness psittacosis in people. However, the cockatiel is not known to have spread the infection to a person.

The health district says it is working with the Pasco Flea Market, which it calls a valued event in the Tri-Cities, to address health concerns.

On most weekends from March through October, 8,000 to 10,000 people work or shop at Eastern Washington’s largest open-air flea market just off Highway 12 at 3620 E. Lewis Place in Pasco.

The health district urges residents of Benton and Franklin counties to make sure they are buying pets from reputable sellers and sellers that follow Washington state Department of Health requirements for animal vendors.

State law requires that people selling reptiles, frogs and poultry chicks provide written information about possible diseases and how to prevent infection, including in people at high risk of serious illness.

Vendors selling birds including parrots, cockatoos, lovebirds and parakeets, must provide written information on psittacosis and avian chlamydiosis and post a sign with information.

Infected pet turtle

The infected turtle from the flea market had a shell less than 4 inches long.

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Federal law bans the sale of turtles smaller than 4inches because they have caused many illnesses, especially in young children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Salmonella infection is most serious in children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems. Households with any of those most at-risk people should consider a different pet than a turtle, according to health officials.

Pet turtles, including those larger than 4 inches, can spread salmonella germs to tank water and anything in the area where they live and roam.

People can get sick from touching a turtle or surfaces it has contaminated and then touching their mouth or food with unwashed hands.

Symptoms of salmonella illness in people usually appear one to three days after exposure and can include severe or bloody diarrhea, fever, chills, abdominal pain and vomiting.

The Benton Franklin Health Department recommends washing hands well after handling turtles or anything they have touched. Their cages and equipment should not be washed in kitchen sinks.

It also warns against kissing or nuzzling pet turtles.

As of about a month ago, the CDC reported it was investigating an outbreak of salmonella in 18 states linked to small turtles. About 40% of the 59 illnesses reported were in children younger than 5. No deaths had been reported, but 23 people have been hospitalized.

About a quarter of the people in the nationwide outbreak have been Hispanic.

Infected birds

Anyone who owns a bird bought at the flea market that appears to be sick, should talk to a veterinarian and mention that it may have been exposed to avian chlamydiosis, according to the health district.

Symptoms in infected birds may include fatigue, decreased appetite, watery or discolored droppings, weight loss, eye or nasal discharge, and ruffled feathers.

However, birds that appear to be healthy also can carry and shed the bacteria.

The risk of the infection spreading from birds to people is usually low. But people who buy pet birds can take steps to protect themselves.

The most common way to be infected is from breathing in dust from dried droppings and cage litter. Less common is infection from bites and beak-to-mouth contact.

The health district recommends no contact between birds and children younger than 5, adults older than 65 and people who are immunosuppressed.

People should wash their hands after handling birds or their toys, cages or other equipment.

Water with bleach can be used to wet surfaces before cleaning cages or surfaces contaminated with bird droppings to prevent circulation of feathers and dust.

Symptoms of psittacosis in people include fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and a dry cough. The illness can also progress to pneumonia.