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Why backyard chickens are a health risk

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SAN FRANCISCO - NOVEMBER 16: A chicken walks through Heidi Kooy's yard which she calls the 'Itty Bitty Farm in the City' November 16, 2009 in San Francisco, California. Heidi Kooy is one of many Americans that have started to raise chickens in their urban yards to try and save money on food costs during the economic downturn and to find a safer alternative to factory farmed food. Chickens provide eggs and natural fertilizer for gardens while eating the bugs that could harm the crops. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — “Always wash your hands after handling live poultry.” That’s the reminder from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week due to another outbreak of salmonella from backyard chickens.

Two hundred twelve people have gotten sick with salmonella since February due to poultry, the agency said Monday. The illnesses have been reported in 44 states.

This is the 10th time since 2011 the CDC has announced an outbreak due to live poultry. According to the agency, 70 salmonella outbreaks linked to live poultry have been declared since 2000.

“A lot of people perceive a bird with salmonella will look sick, but that is really not the case,” Dr. Megin Nichols, a CDC veterinarian, told CNN after an outbreak last year. The birds carry the bacteria on their feathers, on their feet and in their droppings.

Symptoms of salmonella begin 12 to 72 hours after a person is infected and include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping. This can last about four to seven days, and most individuals recover without treatment. However, those who develop severe diarrhea may need to be hospitalized. Thirty-four people have been hospitalized as part of this latest outbreak.

Those who are very young, who are very old or who have compromised immune systems are most at risk for complications and severe cases of illness.

The trendiness of these birds has probably contributed to the rise in these illnesses, Nichols said, as more people want to know where their food comes and are providing it for themselves.

Before committing to keeping chickens, Nichols suggests reading up on caring for the animals. The CDC offers some advice to help you master a few best practices, as does the US Department of Agriculture on its Biosecurity for Birds page.

But the basics start with always washing hands with soap and water after touching the birds or anything in their environment. Equipment including food and water bowls can be contaminated with the bacteria, too.

To avoid tracking the bacteria elsewhere, use a separate pair of shoes for taking care of the chickens and don’t wear them inside your home. And, of course, keep the birds outside, too, so they don’t track bacteria into your home.

Children younger than 5 years old should be supervised whenever they are handling these animals as they are particularly susceptible to the infection because they often put their hands in their mouths. Be sure to teach them how to handle the animals.

If you collect your chicken’s eggs, wash them well before use and cook them thoroughly before eating.

Those who are sick in this latest outbreak told federal health investigators their chicks and ducklings came from multiple sources, including feed supply stores, websites, hatcheries and from other people. The CDC is reminding feed stores and mail-order hatcheries that sell the animals to take steps to take to prevent salmonella in flocks.

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