Campylobacter is the commonest reported bacterial cause of diarrhoea in Wales and the UK. Most cases of Campylobacter infection are thought to be sporadic and the routes of transmission remain unclear.
Campylobacter is a zoonotic infection i.e. a disease transmitted to humans from animals or animal products. The role of animal products, other foods, water and non-foodborne exposures are still under investigation.
Campylobacter is also recognised as a frequent cause of 'traveller diarrhoea'.
Who gets it and how serious is it?
Anyone can become infected with Campylobacter. Human infection usually results from eating or handling raw or undercooked meat (usually poultry) or from cross-contamination during food preparation. Infection can also result from drinking untreated water and ice or unpasteurised milk, or from direct contact with infected pets.
Although most unpleasant, the illness is rarely fatal in the developed world, even in babies or the elderly.
Rarely, some long-term consequences can result from a Campylobacter infection. Some people may have arthritis following campylobacteriosis; others may develop a rare disease that affects the nerves of the body beginning several weeks after the diarrheal illness. This disease, called Guillain-Barré syndrome, occurs when a person's immune system is "triggered" to attack the body's own nerves, and can lead to paralysis that lasts several weeks and usually requires intensive care.
It is estimated that approximately one in every 1000 reported campylobacteriosis cases leads to Guillain-Barré syndrome.
More information about campylobacter is available from the HPA website. The European Food Safety Authority has also produced a fact sheet about campylobacter.
The majority of patients do not require specific treatment and make a full recovery. There is an effective antibiotic treatment available for complicated or unusually severe cases.
How common is it?
Campylobacter is the commonest bacterial cause of infectious intestinal disease in the industrialised world. Most cases are sporadic and related to fresh poultry meat. However, foodborne outbreaks are rare as Campylobacter does not multiply in food. Large outbreaks are usually associated with raw or inadequately pasteurised milk and contaminated water supplies.
Cases of Campylobacter infection are more common in late spring and early autumn.
More information about the surveillance of Campylobacter infection in Wales is available from the Public Health Wales Health Protection Division microsite by following the link: rates and surveillance of Campylobacter in Wales.
Campylobacters are ubiquitous in the environment and poultry are particularly susceptible to carrying the bacteria without becoming ill themselves (colonisation). However, only a small number of bacteria are required to cause illness in humans and cross-contamination of ready-to-eat foods by raw meat may be an important route of infection.
Prevention measures include the proper treatment of public water supplies, the adequate pasteurisation of milk (and avoiding milk and dairy products that are unpasteurised) and employing hygienic handling, preparation, cooking and storage procedures for raw meats and other animal products.
Additionally simple measures such as washing hands after contact with pets, after using the toilet and after cleaning up after others, especially children or pets with diarrhoea, can reduce the spread of infection from this (and other) bacteria.
Mimimising impact in Wales
One important role of Public Health Wales is the collection and interpretation of data about the levels of infectious disease in the Welsh population. Key infections, including Campylobacter, are under constant surveillance, to detect significant trends, to evaluate prevention and control measures, to identify and manage disease outbreaks and to alert appropriate professionals and organisations to infectious disease threats.
Public Health Wales is also involved in Foods Standards Agency (FSA)-funded research to investigate Campylobacter contamination in chicken available to the consumer.