What is Campylobacter?
Campylobacter jejuni is the most common cause of bacterial foodborne illness in the United States. . Most cases of campylobacteriosis are associated with eating raw or undercooked poultry. Outbreaks of Campylobacter are usually associated with unpasteurized milk or contaminated water
How do people get infected with Campylobacter?
Campylobacteriosis is most often associated with eating raw or undercooked poultry or from cross-contamination of other foods by these items. Infants may get the infection by contact with poultry packages in shopping carts.
Most people who get ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. The diarrhea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The illness typically lasts one week. Some infected persons do not have any symptoms. In persons with compromised immune systems, Campylobacter occasionally spreads to the bloodstream and causes a serious life-threatening infection.
Animals can also be infected, and some people have acquired their infection from contact with the stool of an ill dog or cat. The organism is not usually spread from one person to another, but this can happen if the infected person is producing a large volume of diarrhea.
A very small number of Campylobacter organisms (fewer than 500) can cause illness in humans. Even one drop of juice from raw chicken meat can infect a person. One way to become infected is to cut poultry meat on a cutting board, and then use the unwashed cutting board or utensil to prepare vegetables or other raw or lightly cooked foods. The Campylobacter organisms from the raw meat can thus spread to the other foods.
How does food or water get contaminated with Campylobacter?
Many chicken flocks are infected with Campylobacter but show no signs of illness. Campylobacter can be easily spread from bird to bird through a common water source or through contact with infected feces. When an infected bird is slaughtered, Campylobacter organisms can be transferred from the intestines to the meat. In 2005, Campylobacter was present on 47% of raw chicken breasts tested through the FDA-NARMS Retail Food program. Campylobacter is also present in the giblets, especially the liver.
Unpasteurized milk can become contaminated if the cow has an infection with Campylobacter in her udder or the milk is contaminated with manure. Surface water and mountain streams can become contaminated from infected feces from cows or wild birds. This infection is common in the developing world, and travelers to foreign countries are also at risk for becoming infected with Campylobacter.
How is the infection diagnosed?
Campylobacter infection is diagnosed when a culture of a stool specimen yields the organism.
Treatment of Campylobacter infection
Almost all persons infected with Campylobacter recover without any specific treatment. Patients should drink extra fluids as long as the diarrhea lasts. In more severe cases, antibiotics such as azithromycin or erythromycin can shorten the duration of symptoms if given early in the illness. Your doctor will decide whether antibiotics are necessary.
Preventing Campylobacter infection
Some simple food handling practices can help prevent Campylobacter infections.
- Wash hands with soap before preparing food.
- Wash hands with soap after handling raw foods of animal origin and before touching anything else.
- Wash hands with soap after contact with pet feces.
- Avoid consuming unpasteurized milk and untreated surface water.
- Make sure that persons with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully and frequently with soap to reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
- Using separate cutting boards for foods of animal origin and other foods prevents cross-contamination.
- After preparing raw food of animal origin, fully clean all cutting boards, countertops, and utensils with soap and hot water.
- Cook all poultry products thoroughly. Make sure that the meat is cooked throughout (no longer pink) and any juices run clear. All poultry should be cooked to reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
- If you are served undercooked poultry in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking.
Campylobacter organisms are spiral-shaped bacteria that can cause disease in humans and animals. Most human illness is caused by one species, called Campylobacter jejuni, but human illness can also be caused by other species. Campylobacter jejuni grows best at the body temperature of a bird, and seems to be well adapted to birds, who carry it without becoming ill. These bacteria are fragile. They cannot tolerate drying and can be killed by oxygen. They grow only in places with less oxygen than the amount in the atmosphere. Freezing reduces the number of Campylobacter bacteria on raw meat.
How common is Campylobacter?
Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States. The vast majority of cases occur as isolated, sporadic events, not as part of recognized outbreaks. Active surveillance through FoodNet indicates that about 13 cases are diagnosed each year for each 100,000 persons in the population. Many more cases go undiagnosed or unreported, and campylobacteriosis is estimated to affect over 2.4 million persons every year, or 0.8% of the population.
Campylobacteriosis occurs much more frequently in the summer months than in the winter. The organism is isolated from infants and young adults more frequently than from persons in other age groups and from males more frequently than females. Although Campylobacter does not commonly cause death, it has been estimated that approximately 124 persons with Campylobacter infections die each year.
Long Term Consequences
Most people who get campylobacteriosis recover completely within two to five days, although sometimes recovery can take up to 10 days.
Rarely, Campylobacter infection results in long-term consequences. Some people develop arthritis. Others may develop a rare disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome that affects the nerves of the body beginning several weeks after the diarrheal illness. This occurs when a person’s immune system is “triggered” to attack the body’s own nerves resulting in paralysis that lasts several weeks and usually requires intensive care. It is estimated that approximately one in every 1,000 reported Campylobacter illnesses leads to Guillain-Barré syndrome. As many as 40% of Guillain-Barré syndrome cases in this country may be triggered by campylobacteriosis.
Campylobacteriosis is not a nationally notifiable disease, although many state health departments do track cases. Physicians who diagnose campylobacteriosis and clinical laboratories that identify this organism should report their findings to the local health department. If many cases occur at the same time, it may mean that many people were exposed to a common contaminated food item or water source which might still be available to infect more people. When outbreaks occur, community education efforts can be directed toward proper food handling techniques, and toward avoiding consumption of raw (not pasteurized) milk.
Photo courtesy of CDC/James Archer