May 31, 2012 — The New England Journal of Medicine has published a report that suggests it may be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to completely eradicate salmonella from a contaminated facility. One mail-order hatchery is responsible for at least 316 salmonella poisonings, which have continued to occur since 2004, despite their decontamination efforts which began in 2006. The ongoing outbreak is tied to chicks, ducklings, and goslings, many of which were purchased at agricultural feed stores around Easter.
Experts warn about the risk of salmonella poisoning from handling live poultry, but many people are still unaware of the problem. Hatcheries and other facilities with live birds and eggs are prime sources of salmonella. When a hen is infected, she lays an egg that contains the salmonella bacteria. A warm, dark, incubating egg is an ideal place for bacteria and viruses to grow, including salmonella. An infected embryo does not usually survive to hatching, and if it is properly disposed, there is no risk of spreading the bacteria. Unfortunately, eggs often break. The contaminated fluid is easily spread throughout the facility — on other animals, eggs, people, the air, machines, and more.
Contact with the salmonella bacteria can cause a life-threatening infection. High-risk populations include children under 5 years old, older people, pregnant women, and people who have weakened immune systems. Health experts warn that children under 5 years should not handle live poultry, including chicks and ducklings, due to the risk of salmonella infection. The median age of infection was 4 years old, but the victims ranged in age from 1 month to 86 years old. Approximately 50% had bloody diarrhea, which indicates a serious infection. Furthermore, 23% required hospitalization.
The salmonella outbreak tied to this one hatchery has been ongoing for the last eight years, but was linked to this one hatchery in 2006, when 84 cases of salmonella poisoning were reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It was easy for investigators to identify the hatchery, because the victims were all infected with the same rare strain, Salmonella Montevideo, and they had all recently handled live poultry. The same strain of salmonella was also found in the facility.
The owners of the hatchery made a valiant effort to decontaminate the facility. Infections have declined, but they have not stopped entirely, which suggests that once a a hatchery is infected, it may be impossible to completely disinfect. The owners have sealed floors and equipment, changed airflow to ventilate separate areas, sanitized eggs and equipment with quaternary ammonium, updated practices to prevent the spread of salmonella, and implemented regular checks for salmonella contamination. They have also paid a firm to develop a vaccine against this specific strain of salmonella.
Despite the risk, most people reported that they were completely unaware that handling chicks or ducklings could cause salmonella poisoning. Just 23% said they knew about the risk, which suggests that companies selling the animals could do a better job of informing their customers about the risk. However, only 7% of people received information about the risk of salmonella poisoning when they purchased the animals.
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