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Live poultry linked to salmonella cases

ATLANTA -- Those cute mail-order chicks that wind up in children's Easter baskets have been linked to more than 300 cases of salmonella in the United States, mostly in youngsters, since 2004.

About 50 million live poultry are sold through the mail each year in the United States in a business that has been booming because of the growing popularity of backyard chicken farming as a hobby.

But health officials warn of a bacterial threat on the birds' feet, feathers, beaks and eggs.

"Surprisingly, we found many people are not aware that live chicks and chickens can spread salmonella to people." said Casey Barton Behravesh of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 2004, at least 316 people in 43 states got sick in an outbreak tied primarily to one mail-order hatchery. Health officials believe thousands more illnesses connected to the business were probably not reported.

No one died, but three dozen people were hospitalized with bloody diarrhea or other symptoms. The illnesses were detailed yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and stomach pain but is rarely fatal. It is most dangerous to very young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. The infection is usually contracted from food, but live animals can transmit it, too, because it can be in their feces.

Health officials have long warned that people can get salmonella from touching chickens, especially children, who tend to put their fingers in their mouths. The CDC says children under 5 shouldn't be allowed to touch chickens at all.

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People are advised not to bring birds into their homes and to wash their hands thoroughly after handling live poultry. -- AP

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