When outbreaks of salmonellosis occur in humans and the source of the infection is found to be poultry, the inclination is to point the finger at large commercial operations. Such suspicions may often be unfounded with the source being small backyard flocks. The birds in these flocks generally appear to be in good health and may be treated as pets especially by younger children in a household.
Youngsters, especially those under the age of five, are at particular risk at acquiring poultry borne diseases as their immune systems have not yet fully developed. At the other end of the scale adults over the age of 65 may have experienced situations that have compromised their immune systems putting them at risk as well. There are many members of the Salmonella family each capable of causing specific diseases and chickens and other domestic fowl can harbor them without showing any signs of apparent illness.
In the first five months of this year the Center for Disease Control (CDC) had 372 people with Salmonella infections confirmed to be tied to contact with poultry in backyard settings. Seventy-one cases had symptoms so severe they required hospitalization. Thirty-six percent of those infected were children under the age of five. Individuals infected are usually sick for four to seven days and most recover without treatment. In some cases the diarrhea was so severe the patient needed to be hospitalized. Treatment is usually supportive and symptomatic — antibiotics are not effective. Considering the pattern of infections in various age groups it is not surprising those most often infected are found in day care centers and nursing homes. It is important to remember the cases reported probably represent only a fraction of the total number of cases occurring each year. Control is not difficult but everyone should be made aware of the best ways in which to avoid trouble.
Problems can begin before the chicks are hatched. There are 20 hatcheries in this country that supply the majority of the 50 million chicks sold annually through many various outlets. These operations can be the source of Salmonella infections which can spread across the country. One practice in the industry which is looked on with some concern is where a hatch from one hatchery passes through another one on its way to its destination. This practice may be to fill an order or merely a routing mechanism but the opportunities for cross infections during this shift are considerable.
In an effort to reduce the incidence of Salmonella infections in the hatcheries, proactive measures are in place in some of the more advanced operations. This is a joint effort of the CDC and others to put in place specific steps that are to be followed to the letter. Among these are increased awareness of sanitation, increased biosecurity, regular scheduled Salmonella testing and the use of autogenous vaccines specific to Strain A and other Salmonella strains found in the hatchery environment.
The U.S. Postal Service ships most of the day-old chicks delivered in the country provided they can reach their destination within 72 hours. There’s a record of at least one Postal Worker becoming infected as an aftermath of handling baby chicks.
Good ideas are too often slow to get off the ground and so it is with Salmonella control. The “One Health” approach would and can work well if there is a group which can organize all involved and interested parties.
Mail order hatcheries, feed stores, health care providers, veterinarians and the backyarders themselves should all be working together to reduce or eliminate Salmonella infections.
The bottom line is what the backyard operators can do to provide a safe environment for themselves and their families. First and foremost is basic sanitation; washing your hands and those of the little ones in your care each time you or they touch anything which has come in contact with poultry. Children under five, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems should not handle poultry. Clean any equipment used for the poultry outside of the house, including waterers and feed troughs. Have a separate pair of shoes to go into the henhouse and keep them outside of the house. Do not allow poultry into the house! Do not allow poultry to access areas where food or drink is being served. Control should not be difficult but strict adherence to the rules is of upmost importance.