ATLANTA – Easter is right around the corner and so is the threat of salmonella carried by baby chicks often given to children as springtime gifts, health officials warned Thursday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 81 people in 22 states fell ill last spring after contracting salmonella from chicks. The record three outbreaks occurred around Easter, and at least some of the cases were believed to stem from birds given as gifts.
"This time of year, when everyone's wanting to give their kid a baby chick or baby duckling, that's when we start to see these outbreaks in people not accustomed to handling farm animals," said Charles Hofacre, a University of Georgia professor of veterinary medicine.
Salmonella is an infection that causes diarrhea, fever and vomiting. The bacteria live in the intestines of chickens and spread through their feces, which can cling to a bird's feet or feathers, even if it looks clean.
Children get sick by touching the birds and then putting their hands in their mouths. Young children are more susceptible than most adults, and those under 5 should not handle baby birds, officials said.
With Easter little more than a week away, many feed stores will be selling chicks in a prominently positioned cage or box with a heat lamp, Hofacre said.
Chicks cost as little as $1 or $2 each, according to the Web sites of some hatcheries and feed stores. Some stores give chicks away with the purchase of a large bag of fertilizer.
The 2006 illnesses were traced to three hatcheries in Michigan, New Mexico and Washington state. Sixteen people were hospitalized.
A few cases in Oregon were reported before Easter, and it was unclear how many of the 81 illnesses were tied to Easter birds.
"The sale of chicks is a springtime phenomenon," and not just Easter, said Dr. Nicholas Gaffga, a CDC epidemiologist.
The Michigan hatchery was also the source of salmonella outbreaks in that state in 1999 and 2000. The Washington hatchery was the source of outbreaks in 1995, 1996, 2003, 2004 and 2005, CDC officials said.
None of the hatcheries have been accused of any criminal wrongdoing.
Some states have passed laws to discourage giving small birds as Easter gifts. Four states set a minimum on how many birds an individual can buy. Twelve states limit the youngest age at which live poultry can be sold. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia ban the sale of birds that have been dyed.
Health departments in Oregon and Washington have asked feed stores to display warnings and offer educational materials to people who buy baby birds.