States, FDA probe illegal sale of pet turtles that can sicken young children

Friday, August 6th 2004, 7:46 pm
By: News On 6

Federal health officials and several states are moving to stop a recent surge in the illegal sale of small pet turtles, banned since the 1970s because of the risk of salmonella infections that are especially dangerous to young children.

The turtles, most often a variety called red-eared sliders, have turned up in recent months at malls and gift shops in popular vacation spots in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Kansas, Arizona and Texas.

On Friday, officials in Wisconsin said they had taken action against a half-dozen shops around the state and were working with federal officials to find the distributors.

Wisconsin officials said some stores tried to skirt the ban on sales by giving away turtles to customers who bought a tank and food.

``They even were selling hand sanitizers with it. That seems pretty transparent to me,'' said Wisconsin's state epidemiologist, Dr. Jeffrey Davis.

The problem came to light after a 4-year-old Kansas girl was sickened with salmonella bacteria that officials think she got from three turtles her mother bought while on vacation in Wisconsin.

Brad Stone, a spokesman for the federal Food and Drug Administration, said the agency was looking into the matter but would not say how many states were involved. In December, the agency warned against sales of baby turtles that were occurring in a Houston mall.

South Carolina state health officials are looking into reports of sales of baby turtles in the Myrtle Beach area.

As many as 250,000 reptile-related salmonella infection cases occurred each year in the United States until 1975, when the FDA banned the sale of turtles with shells shorter than 4 inches. Officials believed children were less likely to put turtles larger than that in their mouths.

Snakes, iguanas and other reptiles also cause such infections. About 80,000 cases are reported each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Victims often have not even had direct contact with the animal _ infections can be spread through carpet droppings, contact with adults who handled the pet, or by babies or dishes being washed in the same sink as an animal's dish was.

The CDC recommends that no reptiles be kept as pets in homes with children younger than 1 year old, and that children under 5 and people with weak immune systems avoid contact with them.

Salmonella infection causes fever, diarrhea, cramps and vomiting, and can lead to miscarriages and bloodstream infections that occasionally prove fatal, especially to infants and the elderly.