for National Geographic News
An investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that rodents purchased from pet stores are responsible for a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than two dozen people.
This is the first documented case where the bacteria has been linked to hamsters, mice, and rats, according to the May 6 issue of the agency's bulletin Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The CDC was alerted to the problem last summer after two childrenone in South Carolina and one in Minnesotafell ill shortly after their families purchased rodents from local pet stores.
The incidents prompted the agency to conduct a national search, which revealed 28 additional human cases, mostly involving children, in 19 states.
Six victims had to be hospitalized. None died.
The vistims contracted their infections between December 2003 and September 2004.
"Our numbers are likely an underrepresentation of how big the problem really is, because most people don't get to the doctor who have salmonella infection," said Stephen Swanson, epidemic intelligence service officer for the CDC.
It is unknown how many pet rodents carry Typhimuriumthe strain of salmonella involved in the outbreak in question.
The strain is commonly found in human infections, though, and is resistant to at least five different classes of antibiotics, he said.
Rodents are popular pets among school-age children.
Almost six million U.S. households currently keep small animals, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association's 2005 National Pet Owners Survey. Fifty percent of owners acquired them from pet stores.
"They're cute but potentially contaminated," Swanson warns. "The fur of the animals can be microscopically covered with feces, so it's important to thoroughly wash hands after playing with these pets or after coming in contact with their environment."
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