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Baby chicks are high risk pets. So are baby ducklings, geese, and turkeys.

Are they cute? Of course.

Are they cuddly? Naturally.

Are they dangerous? Definitely!

Live baby poultry has been the source of numerous outbreaks of Salmonella infections in the USA going back to 1953 – maybe even before.

Minnesota has long been at the forefront of epidemiological investigations. In May 1954, Dr. Arnold Anderson noticed that there had been 44 cases of salmonellosis in Hennepin County, Minnesota since the start of the year. More than half (24 out of 44) of the cases were due to Salmonella typhimurium; several involved children, who had been in contact with baby chicks. The chicks were distributed by two supermarkets just before Easter (April 18th) of that year. Both of the supermarkets had obtained the baby chicks from the same hatchery.

Since that first reported outbreak, baby chicks and baby ducklings have infected hundreds of children with Salmonella. Outbreaks have been reported almost every year since 1999. But parents continue to ignore the risks and allow their children to receive, play with, and cuddle baby chicks and ducklings every year at Easter.

Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report that traced an eight-year long outbreak of Salmonella Montevideo infections, all due to a single strain associated with a single hatchery (identified only as a mail-order hatchery in the western United States). This 316-patient outbreak was spread over 43 US states. One-half of the victims were no more than four years old. The outbreak sent 36 people to hospital.

In 2011, live baby chicks and ducklings from the Mount Healthy Hatchery in Ohio were responsible for 96 confirmed cases of salmonellosis – 68 due to Salmonella Altona and 28 due to Salmonella Johannesburg. The same hatchery is the source of at least 123 illnesses in 25 states so far in 2012; this time, due to Salmonella Infantis, Salmonella Newport, and Salmonella Lille.

And now there is another outbreak.

Earlier today, the CDC announced that it had confirmed 66 cases of Salmonella Montevideo infections from 20 states. Illnesses are reported in Alaska (1), California (2), Colorado (1), Georgia (1), Illinois (1), Indiana (8), Iowa (2), Kansas (10), Kentucky (1), Massachusetts (1), Missouri (22), Nebraska (5), Nevada (1), New York (1), North Carolina (1), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (4), South Dakota (1), Vermont (1), and Wyoming (1). Sixteen people were hospitalized. One person has died, but the Salmonella infection was not considered to be a contributing factor in the person’s death.

Once again, a large percentage of the outbreak victims are children – 35% are 10 years of age or younger. Once again, the source of the outbreak is a mail order hatchery: Estes Hatchery in Springfield, Missouri.

The first outbreak patient (known as the “index case”) developed symptoms on February 28th; the most recent one on June 6th. The youngest outbreak victim is less than one year old; the oldest is 83 years old. Eight-five percent of the interviewed victims reported contact with live poultry before becoming ill. State health departments have recovered the outbreak strain of Salmonella Montevideo in chicks from victims’ homes in California, Kentucky, Missouri and Vermont.

Distribution of Salmonella Montevideo illnesses by onset date

In recent years, more and more cities and towns have amended zoning bylaws to allow residents to keep live poultry on their property – even in densely populated urban areas. My own city followed suit, much to my dismay, earlier this year. The family who lives on the corner of my street keeps hens. I have walked past their house and seen their children pick up the birds and hug them.

As this trend continues, I fear that the baby poultry outbreaks will no longer be confined to the period during and after Easter; they will become endemic throughout the year.

Before choosing to introduce children – especially very young children – to live baby poultry, please ask yourself if it’s worth the risk.

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