Campylobacter

Campylobacter is a major bacterial cause of gastroenteritis in humans. Campylobacter occurs in animal intestines and is transmitted primarily through food. 

What is Campylobacter?

Campylobacter is a bacterium found in many animal species. There are several (15) species of Campylobacter, of which C. jejuni and C. coli are the most common. Transmission of this bacterium can occur through consumption of food contaminated with the bacterium or through direct contact with animals. Most of these infections are caused by poultry, specifically by eating chicken meat that has been inadequately heated. However, the bacterium can also be found in raw milk and raw milk products. 

Symptoms

Symptoms of Campylobacter infection appear 1 to 5 days after infection:

  • stomach cramps
  • diarrhoea 
  • muscle pain
  • headache
  • fever
  • nausea.

These symptoms disappear spontaneously after 7 to 10 days. In rare cases, complications may occur such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (disorder of the nervous system) and joint problems.

Transmission

The main causes of Campylobacter infection are incomplete cooking and improper storage of food, as well as poor hygiene.

The Campylobacter bacterium is transmitted to humans via the oral route:

  • mainly by eating raw or undercooked food from infected animals (poultry, raw milk products)
  • sometimes by eating food contaminated by the feces of an infected animal (fruits, vegetables, salads)
  • indirectly by eating healthy food that was contaminated by another food or by water.

In rare cases, Campylobacter can also be transmitted:

  • by inter-human contamination (i.e. between humans) via the fecal-oral route (example: an infected person prepares food without first washing the hands after going to the toilet)
  • through direct or indirect contact with an infected animal (mainly poultry, but also pets or companion animals).

Prevention

Campylobacter is a bacterium that is transmitted primarily by the oral route through food. To prevent transmission, hygiene regulations must be strictly followed, especially when preparing, cooking and storing food.

  • Wash and clean:
    • wash your hands after going to the toilet
    • wash your hands before cooking
    • wash your hands after handling high-risk foods (raw meat)
    • clean the work surface on which the high-risk food was prepared and the utensils used to prepare it 
    • wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly
    • clean the refrigerator regularly (once a month)
    • wash your hands after contact with animals that may be carriers of Campylobacter.
  • Cook in a proper manner:
    • cook meat well (at least 65°C for 5 to 6 minutes)
    • do not use raw milk or products made from raw milk (butter, cheese).
  • Store as cool as possible:
    • place food in the refrigerator (4°C) as soon as possible after purchase)
    • defrost food in the refrigerator or microwave (not at room temperature).
  • Keep raw food separate from prepared food:
    • use a different chopping board for cutting meat
    • use a different knife for cutting meat
    • keep raw meat separate from other food, in your shopping bag and in the refrigerator, to avoid cross-contamination.

Diagnosis

A doctor takes a sample of the patient’s stool and sends it to a laboratory for culture (coproculture). If the Campylobacter bacterium is isolated in the stool, the diagnosis of Campylobacter infection is confirmed.

Risk groups

Anyone can get a Campylobacter infection, but in some frail or weak people, the disease may worsen due to dehydration. These are: 

  • young children
  • the elderly
  • immunodepressed people.

Treatment

Campylobacter infections are usually benign diseases that do not require special treatment. However, proper care must be taken to take in sufficient fluids by drinking plenty of water.

Sciensano contributes to the epidemiological surveillance of Campylobacter in Belgium. For this, we work together with the relevant laboratories and the regional authorities.

Several Sciensano units are involved in the epidemiological surveillance of Campylobacter in Belgium.

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