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Salmonella cases linked to multistate outbreak, health officials say

In this Thursday, April 25, 2013 photo, chicks stick their heads out of a holding cage at a local feed store in Montpelier, Vt. The Vermont Health Department is investigating an infant salmonella case after child came in contact with a chick. The health department says the child's illness was caused by the same strain of salmonella discovered in the chicks that were recently purchased from a local feed store. The health department says dozens of people in several states have also been infected with the same strain of salmonella.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

In this Thursday, April 25, 2013 photo, chicks stick their heads out of a holding cage at a local feed store in Montpelier, Vt. The Vermont Health Department is investigating an infant salmonella case after child came in contact with a chick. The health department says the child's illness was caused by the same strain of salmonella discovered in the chicks that were recently purchased from a local feed store. The health department says dozens of people in several states have also been infected with the same strain of salmonella.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

State health officials are urging caution with chickens after New Hampshire residents were infected earlier this year with salmonella linked to a multistate outbreak.

The department has confirmed at least 11 cases, but state public health veterinarian Abigail Mathewson said there could be more that the department has not yet confirmed. At least 300 people have been linked to the outbreak nationwide as of Aug. 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nine of the individuals infected in New Hampshire had purchased baby chicks from local stores that had received the animals from Ohio-based Mt. Healthy Hatcheries – which has been linked to outbreaks in several other states, according to the CDC – Mathewson said. The department has been unable to confirm the origin of the bacteria affiliated with the chicks in the two remaining cases, she said.

The department will not specify which local stores sold the chickens linked to the outbreak, Mathewson said, citing a desire to protect confidentiality.

All of the New Hampshire patients linked to the outbreak have since recovered. They ranged in age from infant to 69, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and lived throughout the state.

The state learned of the first salmonella case in March, Mathewson said, and additional ones were reported through July. Mathewson said there is sometimes a lag in confirming cases linked to an outbreak because of the research required to trace those cases.

Salmonella is almost always a concern when dealing with poultry, Mathewson said, but the conditions involved when chicks are shipped through suppliers can make the animals especially susceptible to spreading the bacteria. It lives in the animals’ intestines and can be spread through poultry fecal matter, according to the CDC.

Chicks are “intermittent shedders,” Mathewson said, and can be stressed out on their journey from supplier to recipient – making it more likely that they would shed feathers that would be contaminated with the disease.

“The nature of obtaining these animals and raising them puts people at risk for contracting salmonella,” she said. “That’s not to say they shouldn’t have them, because they can be wonderful additions to families and farms.”

So how can people who want to raise the chicks protect against these germs? Mathewson and other poultry farmers said the solution often comes down to basic hygiene.

“In terms of animals and health, what I really stress is fresh air, fresh water and clean living spaces,” said Ray Conner, who will hold a workshop on organically raising backyard meat chickens Tuesday at Evandale Farm in Pittsfield. (The cost of the workshop is $10, and more details can be found at nofanh.org.)

Those who keep chickens at home should always wash their hands thoroughly after touching the animals, Mathewson and Conner said, and should avoid keeping the chickens inside their homes. Parents should also be careful not to let their children kiss or play with the chickens, Mathewson said.

“One thing that is often lacking is this realization that animals are very dirty,” Conner said.

Cooking chicken products thoroughly can also reduce the risk of infection, according to the CDC, which offers additional background on salmonella prevention and symptoms at cdc.gov.

Tom Danko, who spent his life raising chickens, said raising backyard chickens purchased from out-of-state suppliers seems to be popular lately as there are only a few sources within New Hampshire. Danko, who now lives in Boscawen, served as the secretary of the now-dissolved New Hampshire Poultry Growers Association and said the poultry industry in the Granite State has dwindled in recent years.

“Most commonly, they come from out of state,” he said. “There are a few people who sell chicks in state, not many.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

Unfortunately, UNH shut down its poultry department around the time Mr. Danko retired. We poultry growers were referred to UME for answers to our questions. Mr. Danko was most gracious about sharing his vast knowledge and experience. It's really unfortunate UNH made this decision as it contributed to the decline of our poultry industry.

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