4 Nebraskans among Americans hit by salmonella outbreak linked to backyard chickens

Juli Morris enjoys collecting fresh eggs of all different colors and sizes. She watches the funny antics of her backyard chickens with amusement.

Yet the long-time chicken owner understands that, given the risk of infection, there are precautions necessary for bird-owners like herself.

Four Nebraskans are among the Americans who have contracted salmonella linked to contact with backyard chickens. No cases have been reported in Douglas County, where 250 people have permits for backyard poultry.

Since February, 212 cases of such infections have been reported in 44 states, resulting in 34 hospitalizations, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. More than 70 percent of those infected reported contact with chickens in the week before their illness started.

Morris said people in the backyard chicken community, which includes an Omaha Facebook group that boasts more than 1,500 members, are aware of the outbreak. She said people should use common sense and follow basic health guidelines to avoid infection.

“The backyard chicken community isn’t necessarily all up in arms and panicked about this,” Morris said. “It’s more of an awareness to just follow proper procedures.”

People infected by salmonella bacteria suffer from diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and other symptoms of dehydration, said Dr. Anne O’Keefe, Douglas County Health Department’s senior epidemiologist. People with severe symptoms should seek treatment at a hospital. The infection can be fatal.

The outbreak traces back to chicks and ducklings from multiple hatcheries, according to the CDC. The birds can appear healthy but carry the bacteria on their feathers, feet or beaks or in their droppings.

Children under 5 years old account for about a quarter of the cases. Kids are more susceptible because they are more likely to kiss and snuggle with baby chicks, O’Keefe said. Their symptoms typically are more severe.

O’Keefe said children, people older than 65 years old and people with weakened immune systems should avoid handling chickens entirely.

The best way to stay safe from infection is to wash your hands thoroughly after handling poultry, O’Keefe said.

People also should keep the birds out of the house, wear a separate pair of shoes when tending chickens to avoid tracking bacteria around, never eat or drink near the chicken coop and avoid kissing or hugging the chicks, O’Keefe said.

The CDC continues to investigate the outbreak.

Morris said that despite the potential for infection, owning chickens is worth it.

“Absolutely,” she said. “They bring so much joy.”

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