By: James Peacock

Garfield County health officials are currently investigating a potential illness outbreak caused by the Rifle Rodeo held in the area. The rodeo, held on Monday, June 5th, was hardly over for 6 hours before health officials began to get calls from people complaining of gastrointestinal illnesses.

What Do We Know?

At this point dozens of people have reported symptoms. Health officials are launching an investigation into the rodeo and asking that anyone who attended the rodeo, regardless on if they are exhibiting symptoms, contact them at 970-625-5200, extension 8128. Health officials are attempting to locate the cause of the outbreak. By conducting interviews with people at the rodeo, they will be better able to ascertain what the source of the contamination was. Due to the early stages of this investigation, health officials are not only unsure of the source of the outbreak, but also are unsure about the pathogen that caused it.

Interviews remain one of the two main ways that health officials investigate an illness outbreak. By establishing patterns, health officials can narrow down the possibilities and find some answers. Testing samples taken from the environment and from ill persons will also help the efforts of health officials, but these will take some time. Some people have reported being ill after eating at the rodeo, while others maintain that they did not. However, eating contaminated food is only one way to catch an illness. Many pathogens that cause foodborne illness outbreaks can also be spread from simply coming in contact with a contaminated object. This has been the case in many outbreaks, including recent investigations by the CDC into Salmonella being spread by contact with chickens in backyard flocks. Infections can also be spread through coming into contact with someone who is already sick, as we have seen in the recent outbreak connected to a restaurant in Michigan.

As the investigation progresses, more information will be released to the public and more conclusions about the outbreak will be able to be made. What we know now, though, is that people have reported symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, and cramping. These symptoms are caused by a myriad of illnesses, including most of the pathogens we typically see in foodborne illness outbreaks. Something else we know, though, is that people began to report illnesses as soon as 6 hours after the rodeo ended. This would mean that the potential pathogen would have to have a very short incubation period, which narrows down the list of potential pathogens.

What Could It Be?

Salmonella bacteria are perhaps the most common of pathogens that can cause illness in 6 hours. They are one of the most common causes of gastrointestinal illness in America causing about 1.2 million cases of illness per year. Symptoms of Salmonella poisoning typically include vomiting, abdominal cramping, fever, and nausea. Generally, an infection will go away on its own within a week, although Salmonella infections may worsen. Those with certain risk factors, including children, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems may be at an increased risk of developing a serious case of Salmonella poisoning.

Though far less common than Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus is also known to cause illness in such a short timeframe. With an incubation period of only 1 hour in some cases, the 6 hour mark is actually on the tail end of when an aureus infection would begin to show symptoms. Staphylococcal food poisoning causes symptoms including sudden, severe nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, and potentially a fever. These infections will tend to end after a couple of days. This pathogen also appears to be transmitted via improperly refrigerated meats, potato and egg salads, and cream pastries. At least one attendee of the Rifle Rodeo has reported eating potato salad and a pork sandwich prior to being ill, which makes this pathogen a potential cause. However, nothing is confirmed until health officials do more testing.

The only other major foodborne illness causing pathogen that generally causes illness within a 6 hour window is Vibrio parahaemolyticus. These bacteria can cause illness anywhere between 4 and 96 hours after exposure. Symptoms of a Vibrio infection include diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever. These illnesses will usually stop between 2 to 5 days after symptoms appear, and will rarely cause hospitalization or a need for antibiotics. However, Vibrio poisoning is only connected to raw shellfish and other raw fish products and is typically only seen in coastal or tropical areas, making it less likely to appear in Colorado.

Listeria is one of the less common forms of food poisoning, but it is still a very dangerous pathogen. Causing about 1600 illnesses a year, as estimated by the CDC, Listeria poisoning can manifest itself in one of two forms. In those with relatively healthy immune systems, Listeria presents itself as a gastrointestinal illness, causing symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In cases of gastrointestinal Listeria, symptoms can appear in as few as 9 hours. Though outside the 6 hour window we are working with in this case, it is not outside the realm of possibility for a Listeria infection to cause these symptoms that early. In some cases of Listeria poisoning, and especially in the elderly and immunocompromised, Listeria can turn invasive, causing headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. Invasive Listeria is potentially fatal, as it can enter the nervous system and cause meningitis. Pregnant women are also at an increased risk of developing a serious case of Listeria poisoning. Listeria may cause a flu-like infection in pregnant women, but can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. Symptoms of invasive Listeria usually take between 3 and 70 days to appear.  If you or a loved one begins to show the symptoms of Listeria poisoning, contact a medical professional.

There is also something to be said for pathogens that are not necessarily connected to foodborne illness outbreaks. As was mentioned earlier, eating contaminated food is only one of several ways to get an infection, especially at a rodeo. Contact with animals, of which there is a variety at a rodeo, can lead to illness. In addition, coming into contact with already ill persons can cause illness. Illnesses that are easily spread from person to person will have an easy time causing an outbreak at a crowded event such as a rodeo. There are quite a few viruses, including rotavirus, which can cause illness in this short window of time as well as be easily found at a rodeo. As the investigation progresses, health officials will narrow down the list of potential causes and pathogens. Until we learn more about this outbreak, it is recommended that if you attended the Rifle Rodeo, regardless of if you are exhibiting symptoms of any illness, call the local health department at 970-625-5200, extension 8128. Also, if you or a loved one attended the rodeo, and are showing symptoms of a foodborne illness, or any other illness, it may be a good idea to contact a medical professional.