Diseases & Conditions



A form of food-borne illness first recognized in the 1970s that causes gastroenteritis or “traveler’s diarrhea.” Much more common than either SALMONELLA POISONING or SHIGELLOSIS, campylobacteriosis is responsible for between 5 and 14 percent of all diarrheal infections in the world. It may affect between two and four million Americans each year. The Campylobacter organism is actually a group of spiral-shaped bacteria. Most human illness is caused by one species, called Campylobacter jejuni, but 1 percent of human campylobacteriosis cases are caused by other species. C. jejuni grows best at the body temperature of a bird and seems to be well adapted to birds, who carry it without becoming ill. The bacterium is fragile; it cannot tolerate dryness and can be killed by oxygen. It grows only if there is less than the atmospheric amount of oxygen present. Freezing reduces the number of Campylobacter bacteria present on raw meat. In the 1980s, more than 3,000 residents in Bennington, Vermont, became ill with diarrhea when their town’s water supply was contaminated with the rod-shaped bacterium C. jejuni. Without treatment, the stool is infectious for several weeks, but three days of antibiotics will eliminate the bacteria from the stool. While the illness can be uncomfortable and even disabling, deaths among otherwise healthy patients are rare. Cause While there are several different forms of Campylobacter, the most common is C. jejuni, which accounts for 99 percent of all Campylobacter infections. Campylobacteriosis is caused by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with the bacteria; only a small amount is necessary to cause illness. It can survive in undercooked food such as chicken, lamb, beef, or pork, and in water and raw milk. The disease may also be spread by the diarrhea of affected young dogs or cats. The most common source of Campylobacter infection is in contaminated poultry (one-third to half of all raw chicken on the market is contaminated). Consumers get sick when they eat undercooked chicken, or when the organisms are transferred to the mouth from the raw meat or raw meat drippings. The bacteria is common among healthy chickens on chicken farms, where it may spread undetected among the flocks (perhaps through drinking water supplies). When the birds are slaughtered, the bacteria is transferred from the intestines to the meat. Other forms of Campylobacter are harder to diagnose and appear to be much more rare than C. jejuni; it is not yet clear what the source of those infections are. Symptoms Symptoms begin from two to 10 days after tainted food is eaten and may last up to 10 days. They include nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, followed by watery or bloody diarrhea. Other symptoms may include headaches, fatigue, and body aches. Diagnosis The infection is diagnosed when a stool is sent to the lab and cultured using special techniques. Treatment Unless antibiotics are taken at the very beginning of the illness they will not affect symptoms, although they will shorten the infectious period. For mild cases, rest and fluids should be sufficient. Young children are usually given antibiotics (usually erythromycin) as a way of reducing the risk of passing the infection on to other children via infected stool. Prevention Hands should be washed after using the toilet. Anyone with diarrhea should use a separate towel and washcloth and should not prepare food (especially food consumed uncooked). Complications Infection with Campylobacter may provoke a paralyzing neurologic illness called Guillain-Barré syndrome in a small percentage of patients. Guil-lain-Barré syndrome occurs when a person’s immune system attacks the body’s own nerves, and it can lead to paralysis that lasts several weeks. It is estimated that approximately one in every 1,000 reported campylobacteriosis cases leads to Guillain-Barré syndrome. As many as 40 percent of Guillain-Barré syndrome cases in this country may be triggered by campylobacteriosis. Most people who get campylobacteriosis recover completely within two to five days, although recovery may take up to 10 days.