The Centers for Disease Control is investigating a series of Salmonella outbreaks across 35 states that sickened more than 300 people since January, including 26 in North Carolina. Health officials say backyard poultry may be to blame. They’re warning chicken owners to wash their hands and avoid snuggling or kissing their birds.
Mandy Tolson, a veterinarian with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said even birds that appear healthy can shed the bacteria in their droppings.
"It could be bacteria that's just living in their gut. That doesn't make them necessarily a sick bird," said Tolson. "They may not show any sign."
People infected with Salmonella can suffer diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain for up to a week. Most recover fully, but the disease can be particularly hard on young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.
The CDC recommends children under five should not be allowed to handle backyard birds.
"The children are just so at risk of sticking their fingers in their mouths and contaminating themselves that I think it's safe to just keep them away from it if possible, Tolson said.
Raising backyard birds is an increasingly popular hobby. Tolson said many people see their chickens and ducks as members of the family. Still, she said flock owners need to keep their birds outside, away from areas where people eat or prepare food. Health officials suggest owners use a dedicated set of clothes and shoes when caring for backyard birds and wash thoroughly after each and every contact.
"Just really basic hand-washing is going to take care of a lot of the risk," said Tolson.
Across the country, the CDC has identified seven strains of Salmonella associated with backyard birds that have infected 324 people in the first five months of this year. Officials say the outbreaks are likely to continue throughout the summer, as many flock owners are not aware of the risk posed by live poultry.