The pathogen Campylobacter takes up residence in an estimated 1.3 million people in the U.S. each year causing illnesses that can range from mild to very severe.
Most of those illnesses result from eating raw or undercooked poultry. Some are due to contaminated water, drinking raw milk, or contact with infected animals.
When it comes to understanding Campylobacter—and using cutting-edge science to address its human health burden and apply effective diagnostic intervention strategies to reduce suffering caused by this pathogen—Dr. Irving Nachamkin is the go-to person.
In our Q & A below, you’ll learn more about Dr. Nachamkin and how he became inspired to dedicate his career to improving human health and, specifically, becoming a warrior in our battle against foodborne illness. Plus, he’ll shine a bright spotlight on why it’s so important to avoid risks associated with Campylobacter so you and your family can stay safe from harmful illnesses caused by it.
Q: Dr. Nachamkin, tell us about your personal story and how you’ve come to be in your profession.
A: Since childhood, I’ve always been interested in science, medicine, and disease. But, when I first entered college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on. I began reading about medical laboratory science and found this to be a very interesting field. I had the opportunity to work in medical laboratories doing laboratory diagnostic testing, which really fascinated me, so I pursued a Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
My first job out of college in 1975 was as a Medical Technologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital in the Department of Laboratory Medicine. While there, I was introduced to the many disciplines in lab medicine, which is the broader field of pathology and includes clinical microbiology. I truly loved this work and felt like it was “home” for me. Then, after working for a few years, I came across a graduate doctoral program at UNC-Chapel Hill to train public health lab directors and decided to take my career path to the next level.
Following my graduate work, I went to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond for a two-year fellowship in clinical microbiology to become a Clinical Microbiology Lab Director. In 1982, a faculty position had just opened up at the University of Pennsylvania—a phenomenal opportunity I immediately had my eye on. And, fortunately, I was recruited as a faculty member to Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn, one of best known and respected departments in the country. Thirty-six years later, I’m still at Penn and now serve as Division Chief of Laboratory Medicine.
Q: What’s a “day in the life” like for you?
A: Every day is busy, that’s for sure. And it’s all very interesting and challenging.
In my role, I have several job responsibilities. First, I’m a division director overseeing lab medicine laboratories along with numerous faculty and staff. As a member of the department’s senior leadership, I’m involved in many high-level decisions for the department. I’m also an attending director for our clinical microbiology laboratory, which has me involved in clinical consultations about microbiology lab diagnostic testing, operations, teaching, and research. There’s a lot I do, but I’ll just touch on a couple things as it relates to foodborne illness/Campylobacter.
One part of my work each day is receiving alerts about positive stool cultures and a variety of enteric pathogens detected in our patients including Campylobacter, Norovirus, Salmonella, Shigella, STEC, Yersinia, Vibrio and others—many of which are foodborne diseases. We keep a look out for upticks in positive cultures as this might indicate the beginning of an outbreak in the region. I also give advice to physicians on specific cases when dealing with difficult-to-treat infections. For example, patients with certain types of immune deficiencies (e.g., common variable immunodeficiency or CVID) are particularly at risk for foodborne diseases and may not clear the infections as would people with normal immune systems.
Research is another important area of my work, which I’m quite passionate about. I’ve been researching and studying Campylobacter and other gastrointestinal infections for decades. I’ve also become more interested in food safety over the years through collaborative research via grants I’ve received on Campylobacter from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Q: How did you learn about Stop Foodborne Illness and what’s most valuable to you as it relates to what we do?
A: I was doing some online research when I saw a link to the Stop Foodborne Illness website. I clicked over and began reading stories about the victims, checked out the resources offered, signed up for e-Alerts, and began following Stop Foodborne Illness on Twitter. It really hit me that this organization does A LOT to promote food safety and help people affected by it.
For me, I think what’s most valuable are the patient stories and articles on food safety topics. I regularly use them in my lectures and to increase awareness on issues of concern through Twitter.
Q: What do you want every person to know about food safety and Campylobacter?
A: I’ll point out a few things about Campylobacter, in particular, I’d like everyone to know.
First, I want to share that a Campylobacter infection is MORE common than other better known enteropathogens like Salmonella. It’s probably surprising to you, I know. And with Campylobacter, there’s a high burden of illness. In addition to severe gastrointestinal illness, Campylobacter can cause Guillain- Barré syndrome (an acute paralytic disease) and reactive arthritis. And it’s now known to be associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Second, I strongly urge you to take every step you can to avoid contact with this potentially harmful pathogen. One easy way to do this is by not drinking raw milk—it’s one of the most common sources for continuing Campylobacter outbreaks in the United States.
And, before you go, please take a few minutes to learn more about how to prevent a Campylobacter infection here.
Dr. Irving Nachamkin is Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Director of the William Pepper Laboratory of Clinical Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He has studied foodborne illnesses for decades—particularly Campylobacter infections—and has edited three books on the topic. Dr. Nachamkin is a board-certified medical microbiologist and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Society of America. Dr. Nachamkin lives in the Philadelphia region with his wife of 35 years, has two children living out west, and in his free time he’s an avid cycler and golfer.