What is Campylobacter?
Campylobacter is one of the most common bacterial causes of diarrhea and gastroenteritis illnesses in the United States, reporting even higher cases than Salmonella.
Although Campylobacter organisms are mainly spiral-shaped, Campylobacter bacteria can also appear curved, S-shaped, and rod-shaped. There are 17 known species and 6 subspecies of the genus Campylobacter today; among them the species Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter loci which were reported to have been caused human illnesses the most.
Campylobacter bacteria are delicate and easily killed by the oxygen found in the atmosphere. Hence, these organisms mostly prefer atmospheres where there is little oxygen. They are commonly found in the intestinal tracts of swine, poultry, cattle, and other warm-blooded animals. The strain Campylobacter jejuni is best adapted to the body temperature of birds. They are also found in untreated water.
Campylobacter Transmission to Humans
Although Campylobacter organisms thrive in animals, they rarely cause them any illnesses. However, if an infected animal is consumed by humans, they can be transmitted to the human body and cause diarrheal illnesses. Although transmission from human to human is very rare, there is a possibility that an infected person can spread Campylobacter bacteria through large quantities of diarrhea.
Campylobacter infections are widely associated with eating raw or undercooked meat that has been contaminated by bacteria. However, other means of transmission are possible, including cross-contamination of other food items, contact with contaminated food packages, as well as contact with the stool of other infected people or animals. Outbreaks of Campylobacter happen when several people consume contaminated water or unpasteurized milk from infected animals, as well as when they get contact with contact with contaminated water while swimming. Studies reveal that a person can already become ill if he has acquired as little as 500 Campylobacter organisms in his body.
What is Campylobacteriosis?
Campylobacter infections are known as campylobacteriosis. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 13 diagnosed cases of campylobacteriosis for every 100,000 of the population in the United States each year. Statistics show that campylobacteriosis is more common during summer months than during winter.
Who can become affected with Campylobacter infections?
Campylobacter infections affect everyone. However, infants, children, the elderly, and other people with certain conditions such as pregnancy, kidney illnesses, cancer, diabetes, and immune diseases (such as HIV/AIDS) are at higher risks of contracting campylobacteriosis. FoodNet studies indicate that isolated campylobacter cases occur more frequently in infants and young adults compared to other age groups. They also affect males more frequently than females.
Although not a common cause of death, campylobacteriosis can be life threatening to infants, young children, very old people, and those who already have very weak immune systems. It is estimated that Campylobacter infections causes around 124 deaths in the U.S. each year.
Clinical symptoms usually appear about two to five days after the onset of the Campylobacter infection. These symptoms include fever, cramping, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pains, and diarrhea. Often, the diarrhea associated with the illness contains blood. These symptoms usually last up to about a week.
Most patients usually recover within two to five days after contracting Campylobacter infection. However, some infections can cause complications and life-threatening effects depending on the condition of the affected person. Possible complications include hepatitis pancreatitis, urinary tract infection, miscarriage (for pregnant women), meningitis, and the presence of bacteria in the blood. Some patients are also reported to have developed rare cases of short-term reactive arthritis, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a type of partial paralysis that can lead to neurological and severe respiratory failure.
Patients can get well even without treatment for most cases. They just need to drink plenty of water and take in electrolytes in order to prevent dehydration due to diarrhea. However, anti-bacterial treatments are recommended for people who experience persistent cases wherein the Campylobacter bacteria already cause damage the intestinal tissues. Erythromycin and tetracycline medications are also used to treat carriers or people who continue to harbor and release Campylobacter bacteria without feeling any symptoms of the infection.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and other government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food Safety and Inspection Services are working on various policies to ensure food safety and minimize the risk of food borne diseases such as Campylobacter infections.
The WHO has released recommendations and guidelines for both food consumers and food handlers to ensure safer food. On the other hand, the FISS has implemented various sanitation standards and food production operation procedures that aim to prevent contamination of food products in the United States. These organizations support researches and studies that aim to learn more about efficient Campylobacter prevention policies. Among these policies is the treatment of water supplies to eliminate one of the many possible means of transmission for Campylobacter.
Furthermore, the World Health Organization educates both the public and food handlers about safe food handling and preparation through trainings and learning resources such as the ‘Five keys to safer food’ and ‘A guide on safe food for travelers’ brochure. Both the WHO and the FISS promote good food handling practices and strong food safety programs in the food retail and marketing industries- starting from farms and production plants all the way to the consumers.
Among these practices are:
- Attentiveness to farm sanitary practices recommended by the Department of Agriculture or other concerned agencies. This helps minimize the risk of spreading Campylobacter bacteria among birds and farm animals.
- Regular testing of products in food processing companies to ensure early discovery of possible Campylobacter contamination before it spreads to other products.
- Voluntary food recall by food manufacturers and distributors if food products are tested positive for Campylobacter and other harmful bacteria.
- Reporting of Campylobacter contamination cases to the authorities right away.
Here are some of the best ways to prevent Campylobacter cases and risks of other food borne diseases at home:
1. Cleaning and Washing
- Wash hands thoroughly before handling food, especially after contact with pets or using the bathroom.
- Clean cooking and kitchen surfaces (such as sinks, counters, and tables) to avoid accumulation of bacteria and other organisms.
- Wash cooking utensils, cutting boards, and cloth towels in hot soapy water after use.
- Do not handle food if suffering from diarrhea, fever, vomiting, and other symptoms of Campylobacter infections.
2. Avoid Cross-Contamination
- Campylobacter organisms easily spread from contaminated meat to other food items. Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other items starting from your shopping cart.
- Use separate cutting boards for raw animal meat and other food items such as fruits and vegetables. This prevents other uncontaminated food items from acquiring Campylobacter from possibly contaminated meat, seafood, or poultry.
- Do not put cooked food in unwashed containers that previously held raw meat, seafood, or poultry.
- Cooking within the safe internal temperature easily destroys Campylobacter organisms.
- Make sure that you use the recommended cooking temperature for each type of food item. These temperatures make sure that Campylobacter, germs and other microorganisms in the food are eliminated.
- Make sure that the food thermometer is clean and sterile before using it.
- Avoid consuming drinks and food items that contain unpasteurized milk.
- Use ice only if certain that it is made from clean, safe water.
- Refrigerating and freezing help diminish Campylobacter organisms in the food. Pack and refrigerate raw items, perishables, and leftovers properly according to appropriate temperatures. Keep in mind, though, that freezing and refrigerating alone cannot eliminate all Campylobacter bacteria in the contaminated food.