May 31, 2012 — A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that some types of salmonella may be impossible to eradicate from contaminated facilities. Researchers found that at least 316 people were infected with salmonella from chicks and ducklings that originated from one hatchery, which was never identified in the study. Even though the hatchery owners took steps to clean their facility, salmonella infections continued over an 8-year period of time.
Salmonella can be transmitted to people who handle live poultry, chicks, and ducklings. Life-threatening infections are most likely to occur in children under five years, older people, pregnant women, and people who have weakened immune systems.
Hatcheries are frequent sources of salmonella contamination. A hen infected with salmonella lays an egg that contains the salmonella bacteria. An incubating egg is just the right temperature for salmonella to grow. The embryos typically die before hatching. If the infected egg is disposed of properly, it will not spread salmonella. But if the egg breaks, salmonella can easily be spread throughout the hatchery.
Most of the chicks and ducklings were purchased around Easter, specifically for the enjoyment of small children. Of the 266 victims with known age, the median age was 4 years, but the range of ages was between 1 month and 86 years old. In 156 cases, researchers were able to interview the victims. About half had bloody diarrhea, indicating a serious infection. At least 23% required hospitalization.
Health officials identified the hatchery as the source of the salmonella outbreak in 2006, when 84 cases of salmonella poisoning were reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — however, the infections have been ongoing since 2004. The owners of the hatchery voluntarily took action to eradicate salmonella from their facility. The number of salmonella infections tied to the facility declined over the next five years, but did not stop.
The company attempted to eradicate the salmonella bacterium. They replaced or sealed floors and equipment. They made changes to the airflow in the facility to ventilate areas separately. They used quaternary ammonium to sanitize eggs and disinfect the facility. They continually monitored for salmonella contamination in the facility. They also hired a firm to develop a vaccine against the specific strain of salmonella.
It was relatively easy for health officials to identify the suspect facility — the specific strain of salmonella was a rare genotype of the Salmonella Montevideo strain. Patients all reported handling chicks or ducklings, mostly purchased at agricultural feed stores. The cases began in Colorado, but spread to 43 other states. Only 23% of the people were even aware that you could get salmonella poisoning from handling live birds, and just 7% received information about the risk of salmonella when they purchased the animals.
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