Why Isn’t Campylobacter Better Known? – By Hannah Bolinger

If you have read What is Campylobacter, you will know that it is a top five foodborne pathogen for illness, hospitalization, and death. With that being the case it is remarkable that Campylobacter is still an relatively unknown pathogen. However, there are a few reasons for this including the self-limiting and sporadic nature of the disease, and under reporting of illnesses.

Campylobacteriosis most often occurs as a sporadic illness i.e. a common source for an outbreak is not noted. This tends to draw less attention from both the media and government agencies than the large multi-state outbreaks that we sometimes hear about.  However, larger outbreaks of Campylobacter can occur and are often the result of unpasteurized milk or untreated water.

Campylobacteriosis is also known as being a relatively minor illness. This is true in the sense that most people will recover from their gastrointestinal discomfort without needing to see a doctor. However, illness can also be extremely acute with the pains sometimes mimicking appendicitis. Campylobacter also has the potential of causing more serious infections in the very young, old, pregnant, or immunocompromised. After a Campylobacter infection there is the potential for autoimmune complications such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, a form of reversible paralysis. Those suffering from Guillain-Barré may take months to recover and may require respiratory support. Another autoimmune complication that can follow a Campylobacter infection is reactive arthritis, characterized by painful joints, eye, and urinary tract problems.

Finally, under reporting is another contributor as to why this disease is not discussed more. Because most healthy adults will recover on their own, it is estimated that only about 1 in 31 cases is reported. Many patients do not seek medical care. Even if a patient does seek medical attention, it is not guaranteed that the doctor will perform a culture-based diagnosis. So, there may not be a definitive conclusion as to what caused the illness. Doctors may treat a patient based on one’s symptoms, and because the symptoms of Campylobacter are nearly indistinguishable from other agents that may cause gastroenteritis e.g., diarrhea and/or cramping, doctors may prescribe antibiotics that may not be optimal for treating campylobacteriosis.

It is likely that Campylobacter infections occur much more often than reported. Because the illness can be mild and of relatively short duration patients do not always seek medical care. However, even if they do it is not guaranteed that a specific etiologic agent will be identified. And, because large outbreaks are rare the media does not give this pathogen the same coverage as others which may cause more severe illness or larger outbreaks. But, because of the high number of illnesses, and the potential for severe infections and autoimmune sequelae Campylobacter should be treated as a much more important foodborne pathogen.