03 July 2008

Salmonella outbreaks on the rise

Four thousand people infected in Denmark. More than 800 in the US. Salmonella outbreaks are on the increase, but just what causes this and can it be stopped?

Four thousand people infected in Denmark. More than 800 in the US. Salmonella outbreaks are on the increase, but just what causes this and can it be stopped?

Danish health officials fear more than 4 000 people may be infected with salmonella and are checking everything from refrigerators to credit card receipts to find the source of what may be the worst outbreak in 15 years.

The Ministry of Health has said that 330 cases have been confirmed and about a quarter of those people have been hospitalised. No deaths have yet been reported and it is believed the source is some sort of Danish food product distributed only in Denmark, since neighbouring countries have not reported an outbreak. They believe it probably is meat, but they do not know which product.

This comes as the US continues their battle with a massive salmonella outbreak which has hit more than 800 people so far. According to HealthDay News, the current figures for the US outbreak stand at 869, with 107 hospitalisations.

While tomatoes are still the primary suspected source of the US’s bacterial infections in the two-month-old outbreak, officials have said they can't rule out other food items associated with tomatoes.

The FDA has also activated the Food Emergency Response Network, which could bring to 100 the number of laboratories across the US working to identify the source of the outbreak. The network has been activated before, specifically during the spinach outbreak and the contaminated pet food outbreak in 2007.

Salmonella breakdown
Salmonellosis, or salmonella, is one of the most common food-borne diseases. The bacteria can cause bloody diarrhoea in humans.

Salmonella most commonly occurs in small, contained outbreaks in the general population or in large outbreaks in hospitals, restaurants or institutions housing children or the elderly.

People with Aids are particularly vulnerable to salmonellosis, often suffering from recurring episodes.

What are your chances of being infected?
The Salmonella bacteria can be found in food products such as raw poultry, eggs and beef, and sometimes on unwashed fruit. Food prepared on surfaces that previously were in contact with raw meat or meat products can, in turn, become contaminated with the bacteria. This is called cross-contamination.

There have also been reports of several cases of salmonella from eating raw alfalfa sprouts grown in contaminated soil.

You also can get salmonella after handling pets, particularly reptiles such as snakes, turtles and lizards.

How will you know if you’ve got it?
Salmonella can develop into a chronic infection even if you don't have symptoms, which is how it spreads so quickly: if someone doesn’t realise they have it, they can easily spread the disease by not washing their hands before preparing food for others.

Symptoms include diarrhoea, fever, abdominal cramps and headache and usually begin from 12 hours to 3 days after you are infected. Symptoms do vary as well and can also include nausea, loss of appetite and vomiting, which can last between four and seven days.

Symptoms are most severe in the elderly, infants and in people with chronic conditions such as diabetes or HIV infection.

How is it treated?
Most often the disease clears up between five to seven days after infection and treatment isn’t required. However, if there is severe diarrhoea, this could lead to dehydration and the person may need to be hooked up to a drip for intravenous fluids.

In the case where the disease spreads from the intestines into the bloodstream, the doctor will usually prescribe antibiotics such as ampicillin.

How to avoid getting it

  • Don’t drink unpasteurised milk.
  • Don’t eat foods containing raw eggs, such as homemade Caesar salad dressing or hollandaise sauce.
  • Handle raw eggs carefully and keep eggs refrigerated. Make sure you throw away cracked or dirty eggs and always cook eggs thoroughly.
  • Thoroughly cook poultry and red meat.
  • Thoroughly wash, with soap and hot water, all food preparation surfaces and utensils that have come in contact with raw poultry or raw eggs.
  • Wash hands immediately after handling raw poultry or raw eggs.
  • Wash hands immediately after handling reptiles or having contact with pet faeces.

Sources: SAPA, National Institutes of Health, HealthDay News.

(Amy Henderson,, July 2008)

Read more:
Water, salmonella link?
Salmonella from turtle


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