BAYPORT (AP) -- Tests on the genetic "fingerprint" of salmonella bacteria from an owl have strengthened a link between the bird and dozens of Washington County elementary students who became ill.
A set of test results from the state Health Department confirmed the bacteria in the owl's regurgitated pellets and feces was the same as the bacteria that made children sick. The owl was being fed chicks that contained the same bacteria, said Fred Anderson, county epidemiologist.
The Warner Nature Center, operated by the Science Museum of Minnesota, brought the pellets to the schools. Owls regurgitate food they cannot digest and students learn what an owl eats by dissecting the pellets. The owl was not brought to the school as part of the project.
The pellets were used last month in science club demonstrations at Andersen and Rutherford elementary schools in the Stillwater area. One pellet dissection took place in the Andersen cafeteria, and the table was not disinfected immediately afterward.
Within days, many students contracted flu-like symptoms, prompting a number of precautions in both cafeterias as well as a hunt for the cause. Several children were hospitalized briefly in the course of the outbreak; one was in the hospital for three days.
Test results on the 19 stool samples that have been sub-typed all show the same salmonella bacteria and the same "fingerprint," Anderson said. No test results have suggested any other illness.
"I don't know how much tighter we can get it," he said. "It feels very good to tie those things up."
The owl was sent to the University of Minnesota Raptor Center for further testing.
It will be helpful to learn whether the owl had or has salmonellosis itself or was merely passing bacteria from infected food, said Pat Redig, director of the raptor center. It's also possible the owl was ill with salmonellosis at one point and has since recovered.
"The bird is the picture of health," Redig said.
If the owl is carrying the bacteria, Redig said, he could be treated with antibiotics and retested over time.
The Raptor Center, which ships owl pellets to schools weekly so kids can conduct the same kind of experiment, may insert an informational sheet with each package of pellets, emphasizing the importance of good hygiene when handling animal products.
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