The National IHR Focal Point of the US. notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of an ongoing investigation involving four distinct multistate outbreaks of Salmonella infections. The infections, linked to exposure to small turtles, are disproportionately affecting young children. Small turtle sales have been banned in the US since 1975.

Four Outbreaks, One “Source”

The four ongoing outbreaks have all been traced to small turtles, defined as turtles with a shell length of less than 4 inches (10 cm). Infection can also occur from exposure to the reptiles’ environment (i.e. water from a turtle habitat).

A compilation of the outbreak data shows 124 cases with the outbreak strains of Salmonella. The cases have been reported from 22 different US states.

Of the 124 cases, 33% have required hospitalization, and no deaths have been reported to this point. 51% of the reported cases were reported in children aged less than five years old.

The first recorded outbreak case had an onset date of January 1, 2015. Subsequent investigations identified four different Louisiana-based turtle farms as the potential source of the diseased turtles linked to the 2015 outbreaks. When pond water from the four farms was tested, additional non-outbreak strains of Salmonella were identified in addition to the strains involved in the outbreak.

Ongoing CDC Investigation into Turtle-Linked Salmonella Outbreaks

The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified the outbreaks and farms involved. Their conclusion was based on laboratory, environmental and epidemiologic investigations, which indicated that exposure to the turtles or their environments were indeed the source of the outbreaks.

The farms likely exported the turtles internationally, according to the agency.

The fact that the outbreak is linked to small turtles that were exported internationally, there is a distinct risk to pediatric populations in countries that received shipments of these turtles.

World Health Organization Responds

The World Health Organization currently is monitoring the epidemiological situation, and constantly conducts risk assessments based on the latest available information.

The WHO notes that despite the ban on sale and distribution of small turtles in the US that has been in place since 1975, Salmonella outbreaks linked to “pet turtles” have continued to be recorded on a regular basis.

“Turtles are a known cause of Salmonella infections in the United States, particularly in infants and young children,” the organization notes, going on to state that most illnesses in this outbreak are among infants and small children.

The WHO concludes its advisory release with the following advice:

“Countries that import reptile or amphibian pets, including small turtles, should pay attention to potential imports of infected pets, and inform local health authorities to consider exposure to small turtles and other reptile or amphibian pets when investigating cases or potential outbreaks of salmonellosis, especially in the pediatric population.”