By: Candess Zona-Mendola

If you live in Cole County and think you may have a sour case of the stomach flu, you may be wrong. You may actually have Salmonella poisoning.

Twenty-five people are confirmed ill with Salmonella in Cole County, Missouri. We still do not know why or what caused their illnesses. This number is concerning, especially as this many people do not usually have Salmonella at the same time. In fact, Cole County Health Department Director Kristi Campbell said the agency generally has only 3-5 cases of salmonella at any given time. But without an identified source, it is difficult to alert the public on what or whom to stay away from.

State and Federal authorities continue to investigate the string of Salmonella cases without a known cause. Since its discovery last week, the outbreak case count has risen to 25 identified cases. Without a link to a source, more may be on the horizon. It is the typical season for Salmonella – with cute baby chicks, dying eggs, starting backyard poultry flocks, and rabbits galore. There are a variety of vectors for the spread of this outbreak.

Finding Links is Difficult, Could the Source be a Restaurant?

The Cole County Health Department is tirelessly working to identify a source. In outbreaks such as these, the findings can be very difficult. According to a health department official, some of those interviewed who have become ill claimed they dined out prior to their illnesses. Others, however, reported eating at home. In an abundance of caution, the health department is checking and inspecting all of the restaurants the victims claim to have visited. According to the latest public statement by the Cole County Health Department, “CCHD has alerted City of Jefferson Environmental Public Health staff, who has jurisdiction over food establishments in Jefferson City, about food establishments that sick individuals have eaten at.”

The investigation continues with the inspections, interviews of the victims, and testing of food products and/or victim specimens. The agencies have not identified where they are at in their investigation process, but it appears it will not be finalized for some time. It is likely that, as the investigation continues, there will be more leads into the direction of the source and transmission of the illnesses. Right now, there is no confirmation. Cole County Health Department Director Kristi Campbell stated during an ABC17 News interview that “the department has not pinpointed a source of the salmonella contamination.”

The Journey to Finding an Outbreak Source

Finding the source of an outbreak is not an easy task. Actually, in most instances, a source may never be found. As of last Tuesday, the health agencies were still waiting for the test results to return from the Missouri State Health Laboratory to determine what strain of Salmonella they are dealing with. Officials commented to the media that the results are expected to provide clues on how transmission of the pathogen occurred. Throughout the investigation, food places have been inspected. But not all of those ill ate at a restaurant. This suggests there may be another form of transmission, like human-to-human transmission or from an animal. However, it is too early to tell based on the information released by the health departments.

The Season for Salmonella

Next to Norovirus, Salmonella is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Salmonella is the cause for “one million foodborne illnesses in the United States, with 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths.”

Salmonella infections can be mild to severe. Symptoms usually show within twelve to 72 hours after exposure to the bacteria. Someone infected with Salmonella typically exhibits symptoms of diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps – typically for anywhere from four to seven days. In most cases, a person can have a full recovery without the need for medical treatment. Usually supportive care, like keeping hydrated and getting plenty of rest, is all that is needed.

But for some, especially those in the high risk group for foodborne infections (like children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems), Salmonella can become severe. Children under the age of five are considered the highest risk group. Salmonella can easily lead to dehydration. Also, Salmonella can cause potential long-term complications like reactive arthritis. The bacteria may also cause temporary issues and inflammation of the intestinal tract, which may take several months to return to normal. In more severe cases, a physician may treat those infected with Salmonella with antibiotics.

Prevention Techniques and Keeping Your Family Safe During a Salmonella Outbreak

Salmonella, like most foodborne illnesses, can be prevented. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide the following quick tips to help keep you and yours healthy:

  • “Cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly. Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs, or raw (unpasteurized) milk.
  • If you are served undercooked meat, poultry or eggs in a restaurant, don’t hesitate to send it back to the kitchen for further cooking.
  • Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, and utensils with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry.
  • Be particularly careful with foods prepared for infants, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.
  • Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles, birds, or baby chicks, and after contact with pet feces.
  • Avoid direct or even indirect contact between reptiles (turtles, iguanas, other lizards, snakes) and infants or immunocompromised persons.
  • Don’t work with raw poultry or meat, and an infant (e.g., feed, change diaper) at the same time.
  • Mother’s milk is the safest food for young infants. Breastfeeding prevents salmonellosis and many other health problems.”

If you believe you are sick with Salmonella symptoms and reside in Cole County, medical attention is recommended. Your doctor can test for Salmonella through a stool sample. IT is also a good idea to ask your provider to report your test results, if you test positive for Salmonella infection. Through routine reporting of foodborne illness, health agencies can identify outbreaks and potentially their sources faster, helping stop and prevent the further spread of outbreaks.

UnsafeFoods will continue to monitor the details of this outbreak and keep you informed as the investigation unfolds.