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Campylobacter

This factsheet is also available as a pdf.

 

Campylobacter is a group of bacteria which can cause campylobacteriosis, a gastrointestinal infection which usually causes diarrhoea, pain, and fever. Campylobacteriosis is generally caused by the ingestion of contaminated water or food, including meat.

 

Origin

  • Campylobacter live in the intestinal tracts of animals such as poultry and cattle, though they rarely show signs of illness. Spread can occur through contaminated water, or through contact with infected faeces. Transfer from the intestines to the meat is common, particularly during poultry slaughter and processing, where risk to human health arises.
  • Ingestion of live Campylobacter can lead to infection and disease, although this can be avoided by preventing cross contamination of raw meat in the kitchen and through thorough cooking of food. Transfer between humans does not usually occur. Raw and contaminated milk, as well as contaminated water can also be a source of infection.
  • Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, and foodborne cases are estimated to number around 280,000 per year. It is more common in the summer months, with flies believed to aid contamination. Further cases arising from other sources such as contaminated water.

 

Infection

  • Symptoms generally occur between two and five days after infection, but can range from between one and eleven days. The timeframe for recovery is similar.
  • Symptoms can include diarrhoea which may occur with blood present, as well as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, and fever.
  • Infections caused by Campylobacter are usually mild, but can be more serious in young, elderly, or immunosuppressed people.
  • Complications can include hepatitis, temporal partial paralysis (Gullian Barre Syndrome), IBS, pancreatitis, and miscarriage, although death is rare.

 

Treatment

  • The symptoms of campylobacteriosis are common to a number of infections, and diagnosis can be made by analysis of a culture from stool.
  • The infection is usually self-limiting and the majority of people will recover without requiring specific treatment. In more severe cases, fluids and electrolytes can be administered. Antimicrobials are rarely used, the exceptions being for extreme cases or those suffering from severe complications.

 

Prevention

  • Efforts to prevent campylobacteriosis can be made from production through to cooking.
  • There are no licensed vaccines against Campylobacter in poultry, and the prophylactic use of antibiotics is banned in the UK.
  • Closed housing conditions of livestock on farms can reduce transmission to and from birds, and hygienic slaughtering and processing procedures can decrease the transfer of bacteria from the digestive tract of animals to the meat.
  • Washing hands and surfaces which come into contact with raw meat, as well as its thorough cooking, can reduce the risk of infection. The risk of cross-contamination is increased by the washing of raw poultry, and by not using separate chopping boards.
  • Freezing raw meat can reduce the number of Campylobacter on the surface, and therefore also reduce the risk to human health. A similar effect is produced through rapid surface chilling and other treatments.

 

Sources / further information

CDC website general information

European Food Safety Authority

Food Standards Agency

Public Health England

WHO website factsheet

 

 

This is a factsheet issued by the Science Media Centre to provide background information on science topics relevant to breaking news stories. This is not intended as the ‘last word’ on a subject, but rather a summary of the basics and a pointer towards sources of more detailed information. These can be read as supplements to our roundups and/or briefings.

 

Updated 27/11/2014

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