I was educated about food-borne diseases and public health in veterinary school. We learned how to identify potential problems and how to prevent them because veterinarians play an important role in protecting our food supply. Food poisoning was something that happened to other people, not me and not my family.
Wrong! I have no recollection of hearing anything about Campylobacter sp. back when I was in veterinary school, it must have had a different name back in those long ago days. Now, however, I know a lot about Campylobacter jujuni and coli, the two most common causes of diarrheal illness in the U.S., estimated to affect more than a million people each year, mostly during the summer months.
Two to five days after exposure vulnerable people experience severe diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, with or without fever, nausea, vomiting, nice eh? The symptoms usually last about a week and most commonly resolve themselves without treatment, except when they don’t. Exposure is most commonly from infected poultry or produce but can occur from unpasteurized dairy products, contaminated water or foodstuffs and even from contact with feces from an infected pet. Back in 2011 an agency of the U.S. government purchased raw chicken from a wide variety of grocery stores across the country. They tested those samples and found 47% were positive for the bacteria. That is a scary statistic.
Because I thought I just had a case of intestinal flu I treated myself with several commonly used antidiarrheal agents. After five days I had lost twenty-five pounds and there was no improvement in the severe diarrhea. On the sixth day I was feeling too weak to drive myself. My son responded to my call for help and drove me to the ER.
I was severely dehydrated. After the blood work was completed the ER physician estimated I was down to ten percent or less kidney function and in acute renal failure. Three days of hospitalization, intravenous fluids and treatment for the bacterial culprit brought me around, but it was a close call. Another day or two and I would have been a candidate for kidney dialysis, maybe permanently.
The lesson learned is that at my reasonably advanced age any illness can turn serious. I am old enough to be vulnerable, to a lot of things. The problem is I don’t feel any different than I did when I was fifty or even forty and still think I can respond to illnesses as I did then by ignoring them.
During my hospital ordeal Charlize spent three days with my son’s family. Since she rejoined me she has been unusually aware and sensitive to me. She frequently comes over to check on me, sticks close by and is insistent about being petted. Dogs can smell things like uremia and my blood urea nitrogen, one of the kidney function parameters, is still slightly above the normal range. Charlize senses that all is not normal with me.
I have no idea what I ate or got into that resulted in this problem. I hadn’t handled or cooked any poultry product for several weeks prior and Charlize wasn’t showing any signs of a digestive disturbance so it wasn’t exposure to her feces. The only thing I can think of was that I ate a lot of cherries shortly before feeling the first effects of the food poisoning. I washed them, as I always do with fruit, but maybe not well enough. There is some evidence that ordinary rinsing with cold water may not be enough to wash off Campylobacter.
Anyhow for people of an age you are vulnerable, be aware! Pets are also susceptible to this type of food poisoning, usually from infected raw poultry, enough said about that. More than two days of non-responsive diarrhea and you, or your pet, need to be seen and your stool tested for this, or some other equally dangerous culprit. Dehydration and kidney failure are serious issues.
- Top 10 foods most likely to cause food-related illnesses (seattlepi.com)
- Creatinine (onnurimedicine.me)
- Campylobacter identified as cause of illness for food festival patrons (theglobaldispatch.com)