As I drove to work this morning, I heard the radio announcers talking about illnesses in people stemming from cucumbers tainted with Salmonella bacteria. I thought of the seemingly endless list of items that can make people sick! It seems a week doesn't go by without something being added to the list. Today it was cucumbers from Mexico. In the past it's been lettuce, tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts. Whatever happened to the idea that vegetables are good for you?
Consider something else most people would never consider a human health threat: a baby chick.
If there was a scientific measure of cuteness and appeal for kids and adults alike, a baby chick would be off the chart. They're small enough to be picked up and held by even the smallest child. They don't bite or scratch. They have big cute eyes and are soft and fuzzy. Just plain irresistible.
But alas, these little guys potentially have a dark side. Right now in South Dakota we're dealing with human illnesses linked to contact with baby chicks. Salmonella infection has been confirmed in four South Dakotans - one under the age of four. These cases have been linked to a larger multistate outbreak of Salmonella associated with contact with baby chicks.
How could such a cute, fuzzy, innocuous-looking little creature be blamed for causing people to get sick? It's natural and normal for baby chicks and ducks (and many other animals) to harbor Salmonella bacteria in their digestive tracts. The birds don't get sick from these germs, yet the germs can be excreted in their droppings. And as you can imagine, these droppings (and therefore the bacteria) get everywhere. Salmonella can be easily found on the bird's feathers and skin if the bird doesn't look dirty. The pen surface, feeders and waterers become contaminated too.
While these little guys carry the bacteria without getting sick, it's a different story for people. If people are exposed to enough of the bacteria, or if the immune system is not geared up to deal with the infection, illness can result. Illness in people involves several days of unpleasantness-diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and vomiting. In some people, Salmonella can leave the gut, enter the bloodstream and cause an overwhelming and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection.
What is really meant by exposure? These illnesses affect the digestive tract, and the easiest way for a germ to get there is through the mouth. While no one wants to believe we're actually eating these bacteria, that's what happens. You can probably come up with several ways this can happen. Once the bacteria is on our hands, it can enter our digestive tract when we wipe our mouth or transfer it to a sandwich or bag of chips which we eat. Little kids who kiss the baby chick can create a direct path for the bacteria to the digestive tract.
Hatcheries that supply chicks and ducklings to farm stores or directly to farmers or backyard flock owners have strategies in place to decrease the chance of Salmonella infection in their chicks, but they're fighting a tough battle with the bug. Strategies in place to knock down one strain of Salmonella might not work well for others.
It's prudent to use common sense around young chicks and ducks, especially when little kids are involved. My major recommendation is that of washing your hands with soap and water after handling the birds or the items they have contacted. Hand sanitizer would be a second choice. Unless you can make darn sure that little kids (under age 5) won't put the birds up to their mouths and that they can get their hands washed properly afterwards, it's probably best that they don't handle the little chicks.
I have a hard time saying that kids shouldn't handle animals. With each generation, our children get more removed from our farms and ranches, and with that their understanding of animals' role in our society. But with that distance comes the fact that children now have lower levels of immunity against bacteria that can cause some very serious illnesses, like Salmonella. Knowing more about these illnesses and contacts, and using common sense after handling animals will help prevent some potentially serious problems.