March 02, 2005
Bug of the Month for March: CAMPYLOBACTER
Q: What is Campylobacter?
A: Campylobacter [pronounced “kamp-e-lo-back-ter”] bacteria are commonly found in the intestinal tracts of cats, dogs, poultry, cattle, swine, rodents, monkeys, wild birds, and some humans. The bacteria pass through feces to cycle through the environment and are also in untreated water. Campylobacter jejuni, the strain associated with most reported human infections, may be present in the body without causing illness.
Q: Why are we hearing more about Campylobacter?
A: During the 1980’s, public health authorities began to learn more about the prevalence of the bacteria in the environment, the illness it can cause, and laboratory techniques for identifying the bacteria. As individual states within the United States increase their reporting of illnesses to CDC, research continues on the organism and the disease.
Q. How is Campylobacter destroyed?
A. The bacteria are extremely fragile and are easily destroyed by thorough cooking. They are also destroyed through typical water treatment systems. Freezing cannot be relied on to destroy the bacteria. Thorough cooking is what will make the product safe.
Q: What harm can Campylobacter bacteria cause?
A: The bacteria can exist in the intestinal tracts of people and animals without causing any symptoms or illness. However, if people consume live bacteria in raw milk, contaminated water, or undercooked meat or poultry, they may acquire a Campylobacter infection (also called campylobacteriosis). Studies show that consuming as little as 500 Campylobacter cells can cause the illness.
Symptoms of Campylobacter infection, which usually occur within 2 to 10 days after the bacteria are ingested, include fever, headache, and muscle pain, followed by diarrhea, stomach pain, and nausea. In some cases physicians prescribe antibiotics when diarrhea is severe.
Complications can include meningitis, urinary tract infections, and possibly reactive arthritis (rare and almost always short-term), and rarely, Guillain-Barre syndrome, an unusual type of paralysis.
Q: Who is most susceptible?
A: Anyone may become ill from a Campylobacter infection. However, persons with underdeveloped or weakened immune systems such as newborns or the elderly, or immune systems weakened by chronic illness such as AIDS, or medical treatment, e.g., cancer patients on immunosuppressive therapy, are more susceptible to health complications from Campylobacter. The elderly could also be more susceptible because of weakened immune systems.
Q: What causes humans to get this disease?
A: Contaminated water, raw milk, and raw or undercooked meat or poultry can all be the “vehicles” that carry Campylobacter and other bacteria into the human intestinal system. Fecal matter on an animal’s coat might be transmitted to human hands through petting.
To minimize the risk of illness from Campylobacter infections or other bacterial illnesses:
Do follow the principles of safe food handling, including prompt refrigeration or freezing, thorough cooking and rapid, even cooling. Avoid cross-contamination of other foods by thoroughly washing cutting boards (preferably plastic, not wooden) and hands after contact with raw meat and poultry.
Don’t drink untreated water from mountain streams or lakes.
Don’t drink unpasteurized raw milk from farms or other sources.
Safe Food Tips
to Destroy Campylobacter and Prevent Illness
Most foodborne illness from bacteria on raw meat or poultry can be prevented by proper food handling in home and institutional kitchens.
To keep food safe at home, refrigerate promptly and properly. Freeze raw meat and poultry you will not use within 1 or 2 days. Freezers should register 0 degrees F and refrigerators 40 degrees F. Thaw foods in the refrigerator. Food should not be thawed at room temperature. Cross-contamination of bacteria to other foods from raw meat and poultry can be prevented by thorough washing of hands, countertops, and utensils. Campylobacter are very fragile bacteria that are easily destroyed by thorough cooking. Freezing cannot be relied on to destroy the bacteria. Thorough cooking is what will make the product safe.