Humans at focus of water quality findings
A scientific review of the potential health threats to humans of interacting with sea turtles indicates that handling turtles could lead to people becoming infected with pathogens.
A report by Clifford Warwick and Catrina Steedman of the Emergent Disease Foundation and Phillip Arena from the Murdoch University in Australia published in the United Kingdom’s Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine website this week includes a case study of the Cayman Turtle Farm and outlined the results of water samples taken from the turtle touch tanks at the farm.
Those samples showed a variety of bacteria and pathogens were present in the water and the authors state that this poses a threat to the health of cruise ship visitors to the farm who are encouraged to pick up and touch the turtles.
“Farmed turtles may constitute a significant reservoir of potential human pathogen and toxin contamination, and visitors attending a facility may be exposed to artificially raised risks of acquiring disease as a result both of captive sea turtles and their water, intermediary surfaces and the available consumable products,” the report states.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals funded the research by the scientists. Their findings were also included in a damning report into the welfare of turtles at the Turtle Farm which WSPA released late last year.
The Cayman Islands Turtle Farm managing director Tim Adam insists the Farm’s track record of zero reports of visitors being infected with any pathogens or getting sick after handling turtles at the Farm proves that the touch tanks are not making people sick.
“These latest allegations are another clear effort by the WSPA to undermine the business of the CTF in WSPA’s ongoing goal to shut down our operations, since their campaign thus far has been unsuccessful in achieving that aim,” he said. “WSPA told us from the outset that they want to stop people being able to touch or hold turtles, and they want us to stop farming turtles to supply the local demand for turtle meat. Apparently WSPA has funded a report hoping it will help them achieve those objectives.”
Mr. Adam, in an interview with the Caymanian Compass last week following a meeting with WSPA representatives at the farm, said all turtles are natural reservoirs of pathogens like Salmonella, so it is not surprising that such pathogens were found in the touch tanks. However, he insisted that by the use of hand sanitisers and verbal and written instructions to visitors handling the turtles, the chances of people becoming sick were low.
“Turtles typically are carriers of salmonella and so what we have done is put in place precautions that ensure that it doesn’t get transmitted from the animals to the visitors. In all the 40 years the Cayman Turtle Farm has been operating, we don’t have even one confirmed case where this has happened,” Mr. Adam said.
Could be visitors
In a press release issued Wednesday in response to the latest report in the medical journal, Mr. Adam said that there had also been no reports of staff at the farm falling ill from handling the turtles on a daily basis.
The report authors argue that as symptoms of infection may not become apparent until after a tourist leaves Cayman, the possible link between the visitor’s illness and his or her handling of turtles at the farm “blur” the possible link.
“Because both direct and indirect transmissions are well established routes for reptile-borne pathogens, the entire publicly accessible arena of the farm environment should cautiously be regarded as potentially contaminated,” the report states.
Following the WSPA report last year, the Turtle Farm instigated a review by four marine experts who carried out their own investigation of the farm. That report described the water in the public touch tanks as appearing “very clear”, but the water in those tanks was not lab tested to determine the levels of pathogens in the water, Mr. Adam admitted, but added that the farm regularly checks the quality of the water in all the tanks.
He insisted the farm follows and enforces “safe turtle handling protocols” in line with US Centres for Disease Control and Protection guidelines.
The latest report is published in an offshoot of the medical journal, called “Short Reports”, in which authors submit reports to the editor for inclusion, which are then sent for open peer review and published for a fee.