The scary truth about salmonella

Miriam Williamson

To be published in the November edition of EvaMag

This summer, when it was suspected tomatoes may have been a source of salmonella, many people cut them out of their diet, regardless of where they were grown. Eventually, the warning spread to other foods, including jalapenos and cilantro.

With the growing concern of salmonella poisoning, people were curious about how likely it was for them to get it, what the symptoms are and how it is treated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 1.4 million cases of salmonellosis in the U.S. each year. But out of that, 15,000 result in hospitalization and 400 result in deaths.

Salmonellosis is the infection caused by the bacteria salmonella. While salmonella can be transmitted by reptiles, cats, dogs, ducklings or even contaminated marijuana, it is most commonly spread through food, especially raw eggs or undercooked meat.

“That’s why your mom always tells you not to eat raw cookie dough,” says Shannon Mulcrone, a second year nursing student at UT Knoxville. “The bacteria often live in eggs, poultry and pork, so it’s also important to make sure your pork and poultry cooked all the way.”

Simple things, such as cleaning cutting boards and knives thoroughly after cutting raw poultry; hand washing after handling raw meat, using the bathroom or touching animals; and storing or refrigerating food properly can help prevent the transmission and spreading of salmonella.

The symptoms of salmonellosis can take up to 48 hours to appear, and can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cold sweats. Although it is not always possible, sometimes by tracking food consumption, doctors can determine the origin of the salmonella.

Nontyphoidal salmonellae are the most common form of infection found in the U.S., and the rate began increasing after World War II, but since the mid 1990s, there has been a substantial decline in the number of cases. Children 15 years and younger are much more likely to become infected, but it is hard to determine exact statistics because many cases are not reported.

“The real problem is when it leads to typhoid,” Mulcrone says.

Salmonella typhi and salmonella paratyphi are the forms of salmonella that cause the greatest concern, as typhoid fever is a huge global health problem.

Improving food industries, waste management and water treatment are the best ways that this infection can be controlled, and the U.S. has managed to do this. The types of salmonella that lead to typhoid fever are much less prevalent in the U.S., and are instead more of a concern for travelers or immigrants.

When 17-year-old Caitlyn Hagenbrok went to Belize in the summer of 2008, she experienced first-hand the dangers of typhoid salmonella.

“I had a lot [of symptoms],” Hagenbrok says. “Nausea, vomiting … I couldn’t keep anything down. I was even nauseous when I didn’t have anything in my stomach.”

Hagenbrok, 16 at the time, was in Belize with a church group for eight days in June. Instead of enjoying it though, she was stuck in the hospital.

“I lost 6 or 7 pounds in three days, and was really, really weak,” she says. “And I was really out of it. I would have a conversation with someone, but they could tell I wasn’t really there.”

At the hospital, she had an IV and was given antibodies to try to stop the nausea and get her eating again.

“I really just wanted to get back home and out of Belize,” she says.

Hagenbrok is still unsure where she contracted the bacteria, since she was the only one in a group of 50 who got sick.

“There are a number of things it could have been,” she says. “Like the food – I did eat eggs, but we just don’t know why I ended up getting it and nobody else did. It just doesn’t make sense because I had everything everyone else did. But the doctor said I may have just had a bad batch of eggs.”

According to her doctor, most people going into a country like Belize from a country like America are apt to get some form of food poisoning.

Locals’ bodies adjust to the foods though, and it is less likely to affect them. But even her doctor, who had grown up in Belize but moved to the U.S. for 20 years, said he got sick when he returned to his home country.

Although this kind of salmonella poisoning is not very common in the U.S., nontyphoidal salmonella can still be cause for concern. Even with FDA screenings and regulations, it is important for people to take the proper precautions when cooking or cleaning their food.

Some information courtesy of UpToDate, a worldwide clinical community.

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One Comment on “The scary truth about salmonella”

  1. Janna Says:

    Some good storytelling here. It’s a nice explanatory piece, with good use of direct quotes. The only weak point – and it is major – is that you have a second-year nursing student as your credible expert – pretty weak when you could go to any hospital and get an experienced full-fledged physician talking about the health threat or even contact the CDC for expert comments. There’s just no excuse for not having a more-expert person doing the talking.

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