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Baby Chicks Crawling With Salmonella

Not Just Peanut Butter: Two 2007-2008 Salmonella Outbreaks Traced to Chicks
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 22, 2009 -- If you buy baby chicks as pets or for backyard flocks, you may very well get more than you bargained for: salmonella.

The CDC today reports two ongoing chains of salmonella infections, beginning in 2007, traced to baby chicks from 10 hatcheries in seven states. The outbreaks involved different strains of the same type of salmonella: Salmonella Montevideo.

Salmonella Montevideo is a different salmonella serotype from the Salmonella Typhimurium serotype causing the current outbreak traced to peanut butter products.

All told, 206 people were sickened in the Salmonella Montevideo outbreaks from 2007 to 2008; there have been no known deaths. Sixteen of the 129 people infected in 2007 were hospitalized. Investigation of the 2008 cases is still under way, CDC disease detective Umid Sharapov, MD, tells WebMD.

One of the strains has been around since it was first identified in 2004; it reappeared in 2005 and 2006 in chicks and ducklings at a New Mexico hatchery.

Is the outbreak still ongoing? That's a matter of definition. The 2004-2007 salmonella strain peaks in the spring and mainly affects children who get pet chicks and ducklings for Easter. The other 2007 strain peaked in the summer and mainly affected adults tending backyard flocks. Strains of both bugs -- with the same molecular fingerprints -- reappeared in 2008.

That, Sharapov confirms, means the problem may well be ongoing.

"We have surveillance systems in place. And our epidemiologists are looking at this and can detect outbreaks," Sharapov tells WebMD.

Most of the salmonella-carrying chicks came from two hatcheries, one in Iowa and one in New Mexico. Both hatcheries have undertaken steps to eliminate salmonella, including vaccinating chickens. But both hatcheries have had repeated salmonella problems in the past.

And the problem goes beyond these two sites. Many of the people who got sick ordered their chicks by mail. In the live-poultry industry, when one hatchery can't fill an order, another hatchery may ship chicks directly to the consumer under the name of the original hatchery. These so-called "drop shipments" make it hard to tell where chicks originated.

Also, hatcheries regularly receive eggs and chicks from various other hatcheries, further complicating trace-back studies.

Live chicks are sold to the public either by mail order or through feed stores.

"The chicks hatch in the spring and the hatcheries ship to customers via mail order," Sharapov says. "This is when the exposure occurs."

Salmonella, Chicks, and Kids

An analysis of the 2007 cases appears in today's issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality weekly Report. The story began in June 2007, when the Minnesota Department of Health found that two people infected with Salmonella Montevideo had been exposed to chicks from the same Iowa hatchery. Then the North Dakota Department of Health detected the same salmonella strain in three siblings ages 1, 3, and 7. All three children were hospitalized for eight to 10 days.

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