The Campylobacter organism is responsible for causing most of the diarrheal illness in the United States. The majority of cases is caused by one species, called Campylobacter jejuni, but illness can also be caused by other species. Campylobacter jejuni prefers the body temperature of a bird, and seems to be well adapted to birds, who carry it without becoming ill. These spiral-shaped bacteria are fragile, they cannot tolerate drying and oxygen is toxic to them. They grow best in places with less oxygen than the amount in the atmosphere. Freezing raw meat can reduce the amount of Campylobacter.
A very small amount of Campylobacter can cause illness in a person. Most cases of illness occur in isolated incidents, but outbreaks have been known to occur. Eating raw or undercooked poultry meat is the main cause of infection. Cross contamination from food that has come into contact with raw juice from poultry can cause illness. Cutting raw meat on a cutting board and then using the contaminated cutting board for preparing vegetables or other ingredients can lead to cross contamination.
Unpasteurized milk can contain Campylobacter if it is contaminated from a cow with an infection in her udder or if the milk is contaminated with manure. Surface water and mountain streams can become a risk from infected feces from cows or wild birds. Water supply contamination is common in the developing world, so travelers to foreign countries are also at risk for becoming infected with Campylobacter.
Large flocks of chickens can be infected with Campylobacter but show no signs of illness. The organism can be easily spread from bird to bird by sharing a water source or contact with infected feces. Sometimes when an infected bird is slaughtered, Campylobacter organisms can be transferred from the intestines to the meat.
People who have Campylobacteriosis may get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. The diarrhea may contain blood and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. One week is the typical duration. Some infected persons do not exhibit any symptoms. Individuals with compromised immune systems may be at risk for Campylobacter spreading to the bloodstream and causing a serious life-threatening infection.
The majority of people infected with Campylobacter recover without any specific treatment. People with the infection should drink extra fluids as long as the diarrhea lasts. In more severe cases, antibiotics such as erythromycin or a fluoroquinolone can be taken which can shorten the duration of symptoms if given promptly. In rare cases, Campylobacteriosis may trigger Guillain-Barré syndrome that affects the nerves of the body. It begins several weeks after the diarrheal illness. This may happen when a person's immune system is "triggered" to attack the body's own nerves resulting in paralysis that can last several weeks and requires intensive care. Approximately one in every 1,000 reported Campylobacter illnesses leads to Guillain-Barré syndrome. 40% of Guillain-Barré syndrome cases in this country may be triggered by Campylobacteriosis.