The rising trend of raising backyard chickens in US cities and suburbs is bringing with it huge increase in the number of illnesses from poultry-related diseases, at least one of them fatal.
Between January 2017 and October 2017, over 1,100 people contracted salmonella poisoning from chickens and ducks in 48 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Almost 250 were hospitalized and one person died. The rate was four times higher than in 2015. The CDC estimates that the actual number of cases from contact with chickens and ducks is likely much higher.
A large contributing factor comes from natural food fanciers who have taken up the backyard chicken hobby but do not understand the potential dangers. Some treat their birds like pets, kissing or snuggling them and letting them walk around the house. Poultry can carry salmonella bacteria in their intestines that can be shed in their faeces. The bacteria can attach to feathers and dust and brush off on shoes or clothing. The bacteria often cause flu-like symptoms, including diarrhoea, and can produce more serious infections in children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems.
Salmonella is much more common as a food-borne illness. More than 1 million people in the US fall ill each year from salmonella contamination in food, resulting in more than 300 deaths, according to the CDC.
There are no firm figures on how many households in the US have backyard chickens, but a Department of Agriculture report in 2013 found a growing number of residents in Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City expressed interest in getting them. Coops are now seen in even the smallest yards and densest urban neighborhoods.
A large share of baby chicks and ducks sold to consumers come from about 20 feed and farm supply retailers across the US. They get their chicks from a half dozen large hatcheries that supply tens of millions of baby chicks and ducklings each year. While the Agriculture Department encourages hatcheries to be tested regularly for salmonella contamination, the program is voluntary. Unsanitary conditions or rodent infestations can help salmonella spread in hatcheries.
How to Reduce the Risk of Salmonella
- Always wash your hands with soap and water right after touching live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam.
- Adults should supervise handwashing by young children.
- Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available.
- Don’t let live poultry inside the house, especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored.
- Set aside a pair of shoes to wear while taking care of poultry and keep those shoes outside of the house.
- Don’t let children younger than five years, adults older than 65, or people with weakened immune systems from conditions such as cancer treatment, HIV/AIDS, or organ transplants handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry.
- Don’t eat or drink in the area where the birds live or roam.
- Avoid kissing your birds or snuggling them, then touching your mouth.
- Stay outdoors when cleaning any equipment or materials used to raise or care for live poultry, such as cages or feed or water containers.
- Buy birds from hatcheries that participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan.
The rules and regulations for the owning live poultry vary by state in the USA, so there are no nation-wide regulations. However, according to CDC, there are certain practices that will reduce the risk of infection:
- Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling eggs, chickens, or anything in their environment.
- Maintain a clean coop. Cleaning the coop, floor, nests and perches on a regular basis will help to keep eggs clean.
- Collect eggs often. Eggs that spend a significant amount of time in the nest can become dirty or break. Cracked eggs should be thrown away.
- Eggs with dirt and debris can be cleaned with fine sandpaper, a brush or cloth. Don’t wash eggs, because colder water can pull bacteria into the egg.
- Refrigerate eggs after collection.
- Cook eggs thoroughly. Raw and undercooked eggs contain Salmonella bacteria that can make you sick.
It may be possible that some of the cases are among people that have limited access to electricity or cannot afford some of the basics, such as a clean coop or hand sanitizer/soap, sandpaper—some of these may be among those most in need in a source of relatively cheap food.
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