Food-Borne Diseases: Camphylobacter


Camphylobacter is the most common cause of food-borne illness. The bacterium was first identified as a cause of food-borne illness in 1975, and is most commonly spread by poultry.

Most cases are isolated or part of small outbreaks. Seventy percent of cases are the result of eating undercooked chicken, although unpasteurized milk, undercooked meat, mushrooms, hamburger, cheese, port, shellfish, and eggs can also cause illness.

Potent Fact

Camphylobacter and other food-borne diseases are often undiagnosed and underreported, so it is difficult to estimate the exact numbers of people who get sick each year.

Camphylobacter normally lives in the intestines of mammals and warm-blooded birds. It can survive refrigeration and grows if food is left out for too long at room temperature. The organism is sensitive to heat, so proper cooking and pasteurization will kill it.

Diarrhea, Again

Diarrhea is the most common symptom of infection. Other symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, headache, and muscle pain. The incubation period is two to five days. The illness usually lasts a week, but can stay around for up to three weeks.

If the person who is sick has AIDS, Camphylobacter infection can be quite severe.

Like E. coli, Camphylobacter infection is diagnosed by laboratory analysis of a stool sample.

Antibiotics are effective in treating Camphylobacter infections, and antidiarrheal medication is recommended as well. It's also important to drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration.

The Immune System's Terrible Mistake

Antigen Alert

Another possible long-term side effect of Camphylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella (discussed later in this section), and other food-borne bacterial infections is called Reiter's syndrome. It's a form of arthritis that primarily affects the knees and lower back. It can become a chronic condition.

Some people who get Camphylobacter infections develop a rare and paralyzing nerve disease called Guillain-Barr syndrome. Guillain-Barr is the result of a terrible mistake made by the immune system. The antibodies our body makes to fight the infection sometimes attack the body's own nerve cells, because the nerve cells are chemically similar to the disease-causing bacteria and our immune system can't always distinguish between the two. The damage to the attacked nerve cells causes paralysis.

The paralysis starts in the feet and spreads up the body. Sometimes full paralysis occurs and lasts for months. Often patients must be hospitalized in intensive care units for long periods of time. Full recovery is common, but some people are left with severe, permanent nerve damage. Fifteen percent of people with Guillain-Barr have paralysis that causes them to remain bedridden or in wheelchairs a year after coming down with the syndrome.

Potent Fact

The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends using a cooking thermometer to be sure the thickest piece of meat is at least 180"F.

One in 1,000 people who get Camphylobacter infections get Guillain-Barr.

Cook That Chicken!

Infection control at all stages of food processing is important, but in order to be sure to prevent infection, it's important to cook poultry properly.

Potent Fact

When bagging your groceries, bag frozen foods and meats together. It's a safer way to transport meats.

Chicken should be put in the coolest part of the car on the way home from the grocery store, it should be defrosted in the refrigerator or microwave (not left out on the counter), stuffing should be cooked outside the bird, and leftovers should be cooled quickly.

Cooked chicken shouldn't be left out at room temperature for more than two hours. The same rules for protecting against E. coli, such as hand-washing, drinking only pasteurized milk and treated water, and washing fruits and vegetables, are true for this organism as well.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dangerous Diseases and Epidemics © 2002 by David Perlin, Ph.D., and Ann Cohen. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.