As backyard chickens become more ubiquitous throughout Columbus and other urban areas, they’re contributing to a disturbing trend, according to national health officials.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report revealed that salmonella cases are on the rise throughout the United States, leading to severe illnesses; and in some cases, even death.
“Although Salmonella is commonly transmitted through food, recent outbreaks have highlighted direct or indirect contact with animals as a frequent route of transmission,” the report reads. “An estimated 11 percent of all Salmonella infections are attributed to animal exposure annually, with the highest rates of illness and death occurring among children.
“... Most contact occurred at the patients’ home, and high risk behaviors included keeping poultry inside the house and having close contact such as holding, snuggling, or kissing poultry,” it continues. “These findings highlight the need for additional consumer education, especially on the risk for illness in children, the necessity for keeping live poultry outside the home, and the recommendation to wash hands after coming in contact with live poultry.”
A total of 53 salmonella outbreaks were documented in the United States from 1990 to 2014, according to the report. Those outbreaks were associated with 2,630 illnesses, 387 hospitalizations and five deaths. The median outbreak size was 26 patients, and about 77 percent of the cases were associated with multi-state outbreaks.
Earlier this year, Columbus Council considered a proposed ordinance that would have legalized backyard chickens on quarter-acre lots throughout the city. The amendment was proposed by a Facebook group called Valley Homesteaders, which has been promoting the benefits of backyard chickens in the community.
But in April, Special Enforcement Director Drale Short warned council against passing the ordinance, pointing out the potential for health and safety hazards. She mentioned bacterial diseases such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, a respiratory disease called Histoplasmosis and Avian Influenza.
Councilors Glenn Davis and Bruce Huff, who had expressed interest in exploring the backyard chicken proposal, dropped the issue after Short’s proposal. On May 23, a representative from Valley Homesteaders, returned to council to refute Short’s presentation.
“Yes. Chickens can carry disease as can all living organisms,” said Elizabeth Melton, a representative with Valley Homesteaders. “But we take issue with the exaggerated sense of danger with which Animal Control characterizes chickens. There have been salmonella outbreaks caused by pet turtles; E. coli outbreaks have been caused by pet reptiles, not to mention flour and alfalfa sprouts.
“Toxoplasmosis is a serious disease, which is spread by cats,” she continued. “Yet, they’re not seeking to prevent cat ownership. They describe Avian influenza as a theoretical public health hazard. Is it wise to make public policy decisions based upon theoretical hazards or diseases found mainly in the Midwest?”
But CDC officials say backyard chickens are a growing trend that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“The number of (Salmonella) outbreaks reported annually has increased substantially in recent years,” according to the report. “Because only a small proportion of Salmonella infections are diagnosed and reported to public health departments, the actual number of illnesses in these outbreaks might be larger with an estimated 29 percent additional infections going unreported for every reported case. These outbreaks are not only happening with increased frequency but also generally affecting more persons.”