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Turtles, children should not mix

Published April 12, 2007


The federal Food and Drug Administration has issued an urgent warning to parents to keep pet turtles out of households with young children, following the death last month of a Florida baby from complications of a salmonella infection.

The agency sent out the alert late last week to remind parents that turtles are natural carriers - and shedders - of the bacteria that can cause severe illness and even death in young children and anyone with a compromised immune system.

"The culture of the turtle was the same as the culture found on the baby," said Florida Department of Health spokeswoman Wendy Riemann.

Besides not keeping pet turtles in homes with young children, Riemann said, "Our big message here is the importance of hand-washing."

Riemann, citing patient confidentiality, only identified the baby as a 4-week-old Central Florida infant. The baby died in March from a salmonella infection traced to the family's pet turtle, she said. It's unclear if the infant touched the turtle directly, or if someone in the home handled the turtle and then touched the infant.

Salmonella, more commonly associated with food poisoning from contaminated or under-cooked foods, can be found on the outer skin and shell surfaces of turtles, causing illness in those who handle the animals if they don't properly wash their hands.

The FDA estimates that 74,000 Americans develop turtle-related salmonella infections every year. That's lower than the 280,000 annual cases the agency estimated prior to 1975, when sales of turtles with shells measuring less than four inches in length were banned. Small turtle sales were targeted because they are the ones most likely to be bought as pets for small children, according to the agency, which regulates the ban.

One exception to the ban is for educational purposes, such as schools and zoo exhibitions. Teaching children to respect animals while also protecting them from harm can be a tough balancing act for educators and other wildlife enthusiasts.

Students at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School in St. Petersburg, for example, can watch the four turtles in their school's "turtle garden," but a glass wall separates the students from the animals.

"The kids don't ever go in and handle the turtles," said principal Kristen Sulte.

Salmonella infections can be transmitted either directly from contact with the turtle or its feces, or indirectly through its water. Turtles who carry the bacteria usually do not appear to be sick.

Tarpon Springs Fire Department division Chief Don Sayre knows firsthand the seriousness of caring for turtles. He doesn't have young children in the house to worry about, but after several years of donning protective gloves every time he handled his turtles, Sayre decided the time had come to find another home for them. He recently surrendered them as part of a pet amnesty day.

"We've been waiting for a year and a half to adopt them out," Sayre said.

So can children and turtles safely coexist? Allen Salzberg, editor of the twice-weekly electronic newsletter about reptiles and amphibians, Herp Digest, says yes, but it's no small thing to take all the precautions necessary. When parents seek his advice, Salzberg says, the first question he asks the parents is how frequently their kids wash their hands.

"Fifty percent of them don't call me back after that," Salzberg said.

The turtles need to be kept far away from the kitchen and other eating surfaces. Ideally, there would be a sink used only for the cleaning of the turtles' tanks, Salzberg said.

And under no circumstances should there be a turtle in the home of someone who has AIDS or is undergoing chemotherapy or has some other condition that results in a weakened immune system, Salzberg said.

Worldwide, zoonotic diseases, those that humans can get from animals, are on the rise, according to public health officials. The Journal of Internal Medicine estimated last year that as many as 50 million people worldwide were infected with zoonotic diseases between 2000 and 2005, and that as many as 78,000 of them died.

Fast Facts:

Turtle warning

For more information about the FDA's warning, go to

[Last modified April 12, 2007, 01:12:02]

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