Salmonella linked to small turtles on the rise
CHAMPAIGN — Alan Kurtz has already lived through one frightening episode involving his son being sickened by salmonella picked up from a small pet turtle.
Decades ago, Kurtz worked hard to get a law passed banning the sales of small turtles to prevent this from happening to anybody else's child.
Now he's seeing a recent resurgence of salmonella illness linked to small turtles, and he's urging parents to consider the risks.
Despite a longtime sales ban on turtles with shells shorter than 4 inches long, these turtles are now being sold widely on the Internet, through flea markets and in stores, says Kurtz, who is chairman of the Champaign County Board.
"Don't buy these turtles," he urges. "If you have one in your home, get rid of it."
Local and national health experts recently issued their own warnings: Turtles with shells of less than 4 inches are a significant source of salmonella infections and can make people sick.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked contact with small turtles to eight multi-state infection outbreaks, including nine people sickened in Illinois.
Nearly one-third of the people who have become ill have been hospitalized.
Nobody in Champaign County has been involved in one of the turtle-related salmonella outbreaks, "but it is certainly out there, and most parents do not realize this is a problem," said Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde.
The illness risk isn't just linked to turtles being sold, Pryde says.
Turtles can be found in creeks, and unsuspecting kids and adults find them and bring them home, she said.
Kurtz, of Champaign, recalls buying a small turtle for his then 5-year-old son, Andrew, 42 years ago from an S.S. Kresge Co. store. He and his family were living in Silver Spring, Md., at the time, and S.S. Kresge had a pool full of turtles selling for 25 cents apiece.
The Kurtz family bought one, and his son played with the turtle, put his hands in the water and eventually put his fingers in his mouth, Kurtz said.
His son became so ill, he ended up in the hospital and was diagnosed with salmonella, Kurtz said.
A hospital employee asked if his son had been in contact with a turtle, and that led to tests being done on Kresge's turtle pool water and Kurtz asking the retailer to remove the turtles, he said. When he got a refusal, he filed a lawsuit against Kresge — and attracted national media attention.
Kurtz also began bringing the issue to the attention to elected officials and persuaded Prince George's County, Md., to make small-turtle sales illegal, and worked successfully to get the federal sales ban in place in 1975.
"Now we're seeing a recurrence of this disease," Kurtz says.
Not all young children survive salmonella, and those who do can still become very sick, he said.
"We went through so much pain and agony for a month," he added.
For healthy adults, salmonella symptoms can include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps for four-to-seven days, and the sickness goes away without treatment, according to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
Salmonella symptoms can also include headache and vomiting, according to the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine. People considered high-risk for salmonella are infants, young children, the elderly and anyone with an impaired immune system, the FDA says.
More from the FDA:
— Keep in mind salmonella infection can also be triggered through contact with turtles in petting zoos, parks and child care facilities.
— Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching any turtles or anything turtles have come into contact with, and never wash turtle tanks in kitchen sinks.
— Keep turtles out of homes in which people at highest risk live, and if you're expecting a child, remove the turtle from the home before the baby arrives.
— All reptiles and amphibians can carry salmonella. Anything touched by a critter in the reptile or amphibian families can be considered possibly contaminated with salmonella.