Read on to find out all about campylobacter, we explain the signs and symptoms, treatments, risks and complications of the stomach bug and how to prevent the spread of campylobacter.

What is Campylobacter?

Campylobacter is a common gastrointestinal infection caused by eating or drinking foods contaminated by the campylobacter bacteria. The illness has been in the news in New Zealand during 2006, because of the very high rates of the bacteria found in our chicken food stocks.

In fact it is very likely that more than 1% of New Zealanders currently acquire this disease every year.

Studies have found that New Zealand has the highest rates of campylobacter food poisoning in the developed world – up to 3 x higher than England and Wales.

Around 6-7,000 cases are reported every year, making up 35% of all notified diseases in New Zealand!

Infants and young children are most at risk of developing campylobacter. Other high risk groups are teenagers, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Symptoms – which can range from mild to severe – show up anywhere from 1-10 days after ingesting the contaminated foodstuff. The illness lasts from 2-5 days and sometimes up to 10 days. Some people develop a very serious and prolonged illness.

Video courtesy: Channel 4 News

What are the signs and symptoms of campylobacter?

  • Campylobacter may begin with a flu-like illness
  • Diarrhoea – this can become liquid, foul smelling and may contain mucus and blood (any baby or child with bloody bowel motions should be seen by a doctor)
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Dehydration symptoms – dry mouth and tongue, sunken eyes, loss of skin elasticity, low urine output (a dry nappy for many hours), irritability, thirst, tiredness, sunken fontanelle (the soft spot on top of the baby’s head). Any baby or young child becoming dehydrated needs prompt medical assistance.

What is the treatment for campylobacter?

Diagnosis of the illness is made by testing a specimen of faeces (bowel motion).

  • Generally there is little treatment apart from rest and keeping up fluid intake.
  • Sometimes antibiotics will be prescribed.
  • Dehydrated children may require intravenous (by vein) fluid treatment in hospital.
  • The illness is contagious and children must be kept at home until they have been clear of symptoms for at least two days.
  • Campylobacter is a notifiable disease in New Zealand, which means your doctor is obliged to report it to the Medical Officer of Health of the Public Health Service.
  • Good hygiene is important to avoid contracting the illness or spreading it to others.

Risks and complications of campylobacter

Risk factors include:

  • Undercooked chicken or meat – especially fried or barbecued chicken. Up to 60% of raw chicken in supermarkets has been found to be contaminated with campylobacter
  • Foods that have been infected by campylobacter – for example poorly stored chicken may have touched other foods on workbenches
  • Contaminated shellfish
  • Contaminated water
  • Unpasturized milk
  • Drinking from outdoor streams and rivers
  • Direct contact with infected farm animals and pets
  • Adults can contract the illness from their children – for example during nappy changing, though this is relatively uncommon
  • Campylobacter bacteria can also be found in household pets such as dogs and cats

Complications from campylobacter include hepatitis, pancreatitis and miscarriage. Serious, but rare, complications of campylobacter include a form of arthritis and Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which is a nervous system disorder.

In 2005, two people in New Zealand died from campylobacter.

15 simple tips for preventing campylobacter at home

To avoid your child contracting the illness, good food practices and hygiene methods are essential:

  • Ensure all food – especially chicken, is cooked properly. Chicken that is still pink has not been cooked properly and is potentially dangerous
  • Use different chopping boards and knives when dealing with raw and cooked chicken
  • Wash all food cooking surfaces and utensils in hot soapy water after handling chicken and other foodstuffs
  • Wash your hands carefully after handling raw chicken
  • Seal and store raw chicken and meat carefully in the fridge. Do not let meat juices drip onto other foodstuffs. Ensure your fridge is adequately cold (0 – 5 Âşc). Chicken should be taken from the fridge and then cooked thoroughly. Do not thaw and then refreeze chicken
  • Ensure all fruit and vegetables are thoroughly washed before eating
  • Take extra care when preparing food for babies and children – especially chicken, meat and eggs
  • It is best not to feed babies reheated leftovers
  • Discard out-of-date food
  • Take care with water and ice when travelling abroad
  • If your pet has diarrhoea – carefully wash your hands and your children’s hands when clearing up after it and contact your vet for treatment for the animal
  • Teach your children to always wash their hands after handling or playing with their pet
  • Keep pets off beds and out of children’s rooms. Keep litter trays clean
  • Teach children to wash hands carefully if they ever come into contact with bird droppings
  • Model and teach good hygiene practices to your children.A good handwash lasts 20 seconds minimum, involves plenty of soap, a good rinse and a thorough dry

For advice on when to call the doctor see our useful Emergency Check List. For more expert health advice, check out our Health and Wellbeing section.

Kimberley Paterson

Kimberley Paterson is a writer and public relations expert living in Whangaparaoa. She had an initial career as a registered nurse and has spent the last 20 years writing about health and well-being.

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