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By Catherine Clabby

Within the really-local food movement, setting up a backyard chicken coop is a hot hobby.

And for good reason. No fresher source of eggs can be found. Whether down-coated chicks or speckle-backed hens, the birds are good company. Keeping the birds can teach children about biology, ecology and the effort involved in putting fresh food on the table.

Even when chickens look healthy, it’s best to assume that they are infected with Salmonella and take steps to protect all living nearby. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But disease risk, particularly Salmonella infection, lurks in backyard coops too. And it’s back.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed Salmonella cases in 35 states linked to exposures in backyard poultry flocks. North Carolina, with 26 known cases reported, ranks among the five states with most infections during this outbreak.

Long illness

Salmonella is not to be trifled with. At best, multiple strains of the bug produce significant diarrhea, fever, and cramping that can last four days to a week. Most people recover completely but a fraction develop reactive arthritis, an inflammation in the joints that can disappear, but roar back as a chronic condition.

“It’s not just: ‘I’m going to be better in a couple of days.’ It can lead to long-term issues,” said Ben Chapman, a NC State University food-safety specialist. “You can have quite a long illness.”

Children younger than five, whose immune systems are still developing, are most vulnerable to getting infected. Those children, elderly people, and anyone with an impaired immune system are most likely to get very sick or, on occasion, die from it.

A Salmonella infection can turn fatal if it moves from a person’s intestines into the bloodstream.

As of May 26, 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 324 people infected by Salmonella strains, infections linked to live poultry in backyard flocks. Map credit: CDC

This trouble can start in chicken coops because Salmonella bacteria thrive in the intestines of healthy-looking poultry. When the birds poop, the pathogen escapes the chicken gut and enters spaces that poultry share with us.

People easily come into contact with infected feces on the ground where chickens peck, inside a flock’s coop or cages, in feed dishes and on the birds themselves. It’s not at all difficult for some of that material to travel on a person’s clothes or shoes.

Infection can strike when even trace amounts of feces get close to a person’s mouth. Given that young children are most likely to put their fingers and almost anything else into their mouths, they are most likely to encounter the bug.

Careful with those birds

The good news is that infection is preventable. CDC officials recommend that children five and younger not be allowed to touch chickens at all. Cuddling with or kissing the birds should be verboten for all. And anyone who touches a chicken or duck, or even has contact with their living quarters, must wash their hands well immediately.

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is advising people not to be deterred from keeping backyard flocks. Instead, in the latest edition of the Poultry Safety Newsletter, agency officials urge people keeping chickens to take all known steps to protect themselves.

“Poultry owners must remember that birds inherently have a degree of risk, and even though they feel like members of the family, birds should be kept out of human living areas,” said Sarah Mason, a veterinarian and director of the agency’s poultry-health program.

Mason stressed that there is no reliable way to test flocks for Salmonella because infected birds don’t shed the bacteria constantly. The best thing, she said, is to assume the infection is present.

Families living with young children or with elderly people at home can also discuss vaccinations with a veterinarian to see if a vaccine exists for the types of chickens they keep.

The CDC has linked Salmonella outbreaks to backyard poultry every year since at least 2012. Investigations linked this most recent outbreak to chicks and ducklings obtained from multiple sources, including feed stores, co-ops, hatcheries, and friends in multiple states.

CDC officials are asking mail-order hatcheries specifically to help stop these outbreaks, in part by tutoring customers about how to protect themselves.

Chapman, the N.C. State associate professor and creator of barflblog.com, sees great value in everything that children can learn when a family keeps chickens. But he also knows from experience with his two children, ages 5 and 7, that it’s tough to keep kids away from chickens, particularly the youngest ones. But it must be done.

“Baby chicks are cute to look at,” Chapman said.

The sight of a child suffering with Salmonella is not.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...