Night of the Iguana

When little Ryan Unger stirs in his crib, his parents fear the worst.Since Ryan's birth, Melissa and Mike Unger have rushed her 6-month-old son to the emergency room 10 times. They've changed diapers soaked with blood. They've watched doctors stick him with more needles than she cares to count. But there seems to be nothing they can do to rid their baby boy of the salmonella bacteria that is raiding his fragile body.Most of us know we can get salmonella from the eggs we eat for breakfast or the chicken we eat for dinner. What we don't know is that the bacteria also lurks in the most unsuspecting places. The Ungers never imagined that Figar, the family's pet iguana, also carries the virulent bacteria. They also never imagined he could pass it along to their newborn son. More than 90 percent of reptiles carry salmonella, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A scary statistic, considering more than 7 million reptiles make their home in American households. And half of those pet reptiles are believed to be iguanas."During the day, there's not a moment that passes by (when) I don't regret bringing that iguana into our home," says Melissa Unger. "It haunts me every night while I watch Ryan sleep. There's nothing I can do to ease my baby's pain. It's the worst feeling a mother can have."For now the salmonella is harboring in Ryan's small intestine and probably his colon, report his doctors at Children's Hospital. However, if the bacteria breaks through the intestine wall and enters his blood supply, Ryan Matthew Unger may lose the battle he's been fighting since his birth. "Because Ryan is more than 3 months of age, his chances are good," explains Dr. Dave Haslam, an infectious-disease specialist at Children's Hospital. "However, it's not an all-or-none thing that once he hits three months he's out of the woods. It could be two years before the salmonella completely clears his system."Doctors forewarned Melissa Unger that her son's battle with salmonella would be a difficult one, but nothing could have prepared her for the latest blow. Last month, when she went to change Ryan's diaper, she found her son soaking in a pool of blood and rushed him to the emergency room.After weeks of invading his small intestine, the salmonella had caused the organ to swell, forcing the intestine to turn itself inside out -- what medical experts call intussusception. Here the intestine becomes confused, thinking the swollen wall is food that needs to be pushed along, and it starts swallowing itself up, much like a telescope collapsing into its shell. The inside of the intestine becomes tightly trapped, cutting of the blood supply, which causes blood to seep out the colon."Before this happened, Ryan's outlook looked pretty good," Haslam says. "But the intussusception changes that a little bit. If it happens again, and his intestine is damaged, he could need an operation. That would be a big deal for a baby his age."From the start, Ryan's case puzzled his parents and doctors alike. Irritability and a low-grade fever led doctors to believe Ryan was a colicky baby just suffering from abdominal pains. As Ryan's symptoms grew worse, doctors suspected meningitis. But tests turned up negative. Then, by chance, Melissa stumbled across what was torturing her little boy."A friend told me that she had heard of a baby getting salmonella from an inside pet," she says. "It never occurred to our pediatrician that I would own a reptile -- she didn't think I was the type." But when Melissa told her pediatrician she had a pet iguana, the doctor became suspicious and had Ryan tested for salmonella.Ryan and Figar both tested positive for the same type of salmonella.The strain, called Salmonella Poona, is so rare and unusual doctors concluded it must come from the iguana. Every year 5 percent of salmonella cases in the country are caused by exposure to reptiles, estimates the CDC. The increase in cases led the agency to issue a warning to pet stores and state health departments alerting them that "at least 90 percent of reptiles carry some strain of salmonella bacteria. The bacteria can cause serious health problems, so serious as to cause death in some cases."The severity of salmonella poisoning ranges from mild diarrhea and stomach pain to nausea and vomiting to death. Healthy adults often only suffer from mild symptoms and may easily mistake the infection for the stomach flu. However, children -- especially infants -- the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are the bacteria's easiest prey.The real danger lies with the fact that you can contract salmonella by merely touching a reptile's cage and neglecting to wash your hands. Most of the time good hygiene will eliminate the spread of the bacteria. Many adults follow the simple rules of keeping reptiles and never have any problems. But would your kids rush to the bathroom and wash their hands with antibacterial soap after playing with a friend's pet iguana? People also make the common mistakes of letting their reptiles crawl on kitchen counters and take swims in their bathtubs -- two easy ways to spread the bacteria.Ryan's parents, however, haven't a clue as to how their son contracted the bacteria. The Ungers say they never let the iguana play on the kitchen counter or swim in the bathtub. In fact, after Ryan was born, they never even took Figar out of his cage. Doctors can only speculate that someone touched the cage and then touched Ryan's bottle."We wish we had an instant-replay camera so we could rewind back to those days," Melissa says. "My older boys have severe allergies, so I'm always scrubbing everything. This floors us -- we don't understand how it happened."Unfortunately, Ryan's case isn't an isolated one. Reptiles are infecting people with salmonella across the country. Health departments in 13 states reported to the CDC last year cases of people infected with the unusual strain of salmonella found in reptiles. Some lacked Ryan's strength. A 3-week-old boy in South Bend, Ind., contracted the bacteria from a pet iguana and died of salmonella poisoning last October. Health-department officials in Akron, Ohio, warned parents about pet reptiles after confirming that four infant girls were sickened in separate incidents last spring.But it was a massive outbreak at the Denver Zoo last February that brought the nocuous link between salmonella and reptiles to the headlines when more than 50 people were stricken with the bacteria after visiting the zoo's Komodo-dragon exhibit. Some of the victims stroked the reptiles as they were being held by a zoo employee, whereas others merely touched the sides of the wooden enclosure. The incident forced people to realize that by simply touching a reptile's cage you can contract the bacteria."The incident in Denver should be a wake-up call to everyone," says Jeff Ettling, curator of reptiles and aquatics at the St. Louis Zoo. "There needs to be more proactive education on everyone's part, but it needs to start with pet-shop owners. It's wrong for a pet store to assume people know that reptiles carry salmonella -- most people don't know."Reptile experts further insist that iguanas be kept out of the classroom. Most state health departments operate on a passive surveillance system, relying on people to contact them. Many cases slip through the system's cracks. Tracking the incidence of salmonella associated with iguanas is further complicated by the lack of a classification system for the disease, says Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman. He explains that although salmonella must be reported to state health departments, the disease is not categorized by strain, which means health departments are not separating cases that are caused by eating undercooked chicken from the type that is associated with iguanas. "This is the first case (involving reptiles) that has come to my attention in St. Louis," says Linda Fisher, chief medial officer of the St. Louis County Health Department. "I'm sure there are other cases that are never reported or even known. Some doctors don't even know to look for it. What I do know is that in the last 10 years iguana imports have grown dramatically."That's an understatement. The exotic, novel creatures from South America are coined by the pet industry as the pet of the '90s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently estimates that iguana imports are surpassing the million mark each year, compared to the 27,000 that were annually imported a decade ago. Some pet-industry experts speculate that the iguana's popularity might have been spurred by the movie Jurassic Park, tapping into a fantasy of owning a dinosaur.The scaly creatures are herbivores who dine mainly on green and leafy veggies and fruits. Their undemanding nature and cheap price might be what's luring these tropical lizards into America's homes. But a lot of pet stores fail to explain that their sexy sell might be a deadly curse.The biggest problem lies with the mall or chain-owned pet shops, which are notorious for luring the impulse buyer. "These shops sell baby iguanas and fail to tell their customers the expenses involved with keeping the animal," Ettling explains. "They need to remember they are selling a life form. They should care about what happens to the animal. Most chain-store employees probably don't even know that reptiles carry salmonella."True. Not only are some pet-shop owners misinformed about the potential risks reptiles pose to their customers, some are clueless that a danger even exists. Melissa Unger says she called all the pet stores listed under "Reptiles" in the phone book and asked them one simple question: Are iguanas safe, clean pets? Not a one said a bad word about reptiles. "What kills me is that pet-store owners say there's nothing to be concerned about," she says. "In fact, the pet store where we bought Figar told me that iguanas are the safest, cleanest, healthiest pets you can own. If I had heard just one negative comment, I would have never considered it."It gets worse.When doctors told Melissa Unger they suspected Ryan had contracted salmonella, the Ungers took Figar back to Reptiles & More. "When we told the store employee our concerns, they laughed and said if that was the case, then we can just turn around and take the pet back home because it is very hard to contract salmonella from a reptile," Melissa says. "Then they told us if we changed our minds tomorrow, we would have to pay full price."Nice customer-service policy.The Ungers insist every time they went to Reptiles & More their older sons, Justin and Daniel, were with them, and not once were they ever informed of any risks. To the contrary, the pet shop warned the Ungers that children sometimes play rough with reptiles and the animals are at risk of being harmed. No one bothered to mention that reptiles can hurt kids or that they carry salmonella. "I don't think any pet store does this intentionally. But many of them are uneducated and uninformed, and that's irresponsible," says Melissa Unger.Joe Rulo, the owner of Reptiles & More, acknowledges that he wasn't aware that a serious danger existed. "I wasn't aware of it being that big of a deal," he claims. "I never heard of anyone who had gotten it. After I read an article in a reptile magazine, I asked my vet to look into it, but nothing ever came of it. When this happened, all of sudden it became a big deal."Rulo says he's truly sorry about Ryan getting sick and insists that he doesn't want another child to suffer through the same ordeal. He's posted the CDC's warning on the store wall, is handing out the sheet to every customer who purchases an iguana, and has instructed all of his employees to inform customers of the potential risks.The Riverfront Times wanted to see if Rulo was making good on his promise, so we went with a 3-year-old and paid Reptiles & More a visit. After a few minutes of small talk, the store employee glanced at the child and said he may be a little young for a reptile. When pushed about why, he explained that young kids often hurt the reptiles by accident. After a bit more prying, he explained that all reptiles carry salmonella and even mentioned Ryan's case."I'm making the fliers because I want to inform people better, but this is not an airborne disease," Rulo says. "As long as you wash your hands and keep the cage clean, there's no problem having reptiles in the house."Washing your hands does eliminate the spread of the bacteria most of the time, and if you follow a set of simple guidelines you'll probably never have a problem. But aren't kids notorious for breaking rules?"Suddenly this is becoming a big problem, but it's not like reptiles just started carrying salmonella," says Tony Lampert, the owner of Planet Reptiles. "Unfortunately, pet shops look at iguanas as their 'bread and butter' because they're an easy sell." Salmonella aside, Lampert doesn't sell iguanas anymore because he's tired of watching the animals suffer. He says you can buy an iguana for $19.99, but to provide the animal with a proper home, you'll need to drop at least $150. "A 10-gallon fish tank and hot rock aren't going to cut it," he says, shaking his head. "The animal will probably have a six-to-eight-month life expectancy. People don't look at the big picture. If they saw how big some of these reptiles get, they'd think twice."But that wasn't the case with the Ungers. When they bought Figar, he was two years old and the size of a small poodle. Mike Unger built Figar a custom-designed cage decked with plants, linoleum floors, steamed wood chips and a special heating element. The Ungers say they spent more than $500 on making sure Figar had a happy home.Judging from their popularity, you'd think iguanas are the '90s version of man's best friend. Think again. Iguanas are notorious for whipping their tails, scratching with their sharp claws and occasionally biting. Including that slashing tail, they can reach 6 feet. "People see iguanas on television and think they're all friendly," Ettling says. "The nice, tame ones are the exceptions. Let's put it like this: Unless you're prepared to dedicate an entire bedroom to the iguana, you better think again."As the public becomes enlightened of the risks involved with owning pet reptiles, this pet of '90s may be recalled. And it's a move that's in the best interest of the animal. The St. Louis Zoo receives more than 10 calls a week from people wanting to donate their iguanas because they've grown too big or are too difficult to handle -- that's about 500 unwanted reptiles a year in the St. Louis area."We almost need a hotline for all the people who want to donate their reptiles," Ettling says. "When you get that many calls a week, something is wrong with the picture. People are outgrowing a pet they shouldn't have bought in the first place. It's a two-way street: The pet store should inform the buyer of what's ahead, and buyers should do their homework and learn about the animal before they purchase it." Rulo also reports that after people heard about Ryan's case he received around five calls a day regarding unwanted iguanas. But somehow in the midst of all those unwanted iguanas, Rulo found Figar a home with a 24-year-old man who doesn't have children -- the new owner was partially drawn by the press attention the iguana received.Unfortunately, although the local television media turned Figar into a celebrity, they underplayed the seriousness of Ryan's sickness. The Ungers feel the television coverage implied that Ryan got sick because they didn't clean the iguana's cage and let him crawl all over the kitchen. "The way Larry Conners ended Channel 4's segment made it look like it was our fault this happened," says Melissa Unger. "They really painted a false picture."The television clips also used words like "recovered," making it seem like Ryan took a quick trip to the hospital and is now doing just fine. Even the New York Times is guilty of sending mixed messages. Last year, the venerable paper ran a lighthearted feature coining the iguana the pet of the '90s while underplaying the risks involved with salmonella.Haslam, the infectious-disease specialist, admits that the link between reptiles and salmonella is also overlooked by the medical profession. "Because of Ryan, most of the physicians around here are aware of the association between iguanas and salmonella, but I think it's fair to say that its underappreciated by doctors." Haslam stresses that the medical profession, the media, zoos and pet stores need to work together to help educate the general public about the potential from acquiring salmonella from a reptile."If a person wants to buy an iguana, they should be told that many iguanas carry salmonella and that they're at risk of catching the bacteria themselves," warns Haslam. "Especially if they have young kids at home, they should be very concerned about buying an iguana. I hate to use the word ban,' but I think Ryan's case might be the one that tips the scales."As the number of cases continues to rise, there are those who advocate for a ban like the one that the Food and Drug Administration placed on the sale of turtles under 4 inches in the 1970s, which in turn annually prevented an estimated 100,000 cases of salmonella. Banning reptiles may be a harsh means to an end, but when you think it might be your child whose life is at stake, it may not seem like such a drastic measure.Just ask Melissa Unger. "I don't think any reptile should be legal -- they are not safe pets," she says. "I really hope the message gets out, so another baby doesn't have to suffer through this. The only reason I've agreed to tell Ryan's story is to help someone. If it saves one baby, it's worth it."


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