Morgantown is one of those municipalities that allows residents to keep chickens in a movement known as “urban agriculture.” Not living on a farm doesn’t keep some people from growing tomatoes and peppers in their yard. Why shouldn’t they also have access to freshly laid eggs if they want them?
But a green thumb does not necessarily translate into farming know-how. And now is appears to be even more apparent as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently investigated 1,120 cases of salmonella in humans who apparently had come into contact with backyard chickens.
This outbreak encompassed 48 states—all except Alaska and Delaware. There were 20 reported cases in West Virginia.
Salmonella, of course, is a bacteria that makes people sick. Typical symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. Most people recover within four to seven days without treatment. However, in some cases the diarrhea is so severe that the person requires hospitalization. In these patients, the infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream and then to other body sites. In these cases, salmonella can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe bout with the illness.
There are several steps to take to avoid becoming infected with salmonella, such as not consuming raw or undercooked ground beef, poultry or eggs. The latter is a bummer for me, because I like eggs over easy. You also should be careful about undercooked or raw eggs as an ingredient in foods such as cookie dough, eggnog, Caesar salad dressing and hollandaise sauce, to name a few.
When it comes to backyard chickens, the problem is when people handle the birds and then fail to wash their hands properly and thoroughly, and with soap and water. You also should do this if you’ve touched anything in the area where they live and roam. If soap and water aren’t handy, use hand sanitizer. And supervise children to make sure they do the same.
The handwashing is common sense, but there are additional handy tips to follow. Choose an old pair of shoes to wear out in the chicken area and leave them outside the house. Also, don’t let chickens inside your house, especially in eating areas. Don’t kiss or snuggle a bird and then touch your mouth.
If your kids are younger than 5, don’t let them handle chickens at all. That also goes for people 65 years old and older, and people with weakened immune systems.
And finally, buy birds from hatcheries that participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan. This program is intended to reduce the incidence of salmonella in baby chicks in the hatchery, which helps prevent the spread of illness among poultry and people.
This is a good time to mention that interacting with other animals also can be a source of salmonella, from common pets such as dogs, cats and horses; reptiles such as turtles, lizards and snakes and amphibians including frogs and toads; rodents such as mice, rats and guinea pigs; and other farm animals. Animals can get salmonella from their environment, by eating contaminated food or even from their mothers before they are born. When you’ve handled any of these animals, make sure and wash your hands and that your kids do too.
Fresh eggs are tasty, so if you decide that raising your own chickens is the way you want to go, it might be worth the effort, if you’re willing to be careful and follow these steps.