By: Heather Williams

According to the Louisiana Department of Health, a mass outbreak of Salmonella in a small town in Caldwell Parish has been tentatively attributed to a local jambalaya fundraiser for the Caldwell Parish High School softball team. An investigation is underway.  At this time, hundreds have been sickened and one death is being investigated.  Authorities are trying to identify if the death of 56-year-old Duane Reitzell was a result of the infection.  An autopsy has been ordered to determine the cause of death and identify details surrounding his illness.

Impact on the Small Town

With this many sick, an investigation by the state health department is routine and expected.  In such a small town, an outbreak of illness of this scale is very noticeable.  Mayor Richard Meredith explains that the outbreak is like nothing that has ever been seen before in this town.  “It’s bizarre,” Meredith said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s affected a lot of people, maybe a couple of hundred from my best estimation. I think they are trying to narrow it down — the when, what, where and why — I’m not sure to what conclusion.”  Drew Keahey, a farmer and president of the Tensas Basin Levee District board explains that as small as the town is, with 200 people in the hospital, everyone knows someone who is sick.

The impact is widespread.  Businesses are closing due to ill employees, and even the courthouse was closed last Friday due to employee illness.  Sherriff Clay Bennett and other staff in his office also fell ill Tuesday afternoon.  The sheriff and affected staff had also eaten the jambalaya from the fundraiser.  Keahey is also the director of Homeland Bank and mentioned that 10 people left the bank as well on Tuesday, citing illness.

Louisiana Department of Health Investigates

The Louisiana Department of Health was notified of the potential foodborne outbreak on Wednesday as reports of illness began adding up and a death was reported.  An investigation is underway to identify how so many people have been affected and which cases are attributed to the outbreak.  At this time, infectious disease epidemiology and sanitarian services for the Louisiana Department of Health are in Caldwell to investigate the outbreak.  Interviews are being conducted and samples obtained to find out more information about the outbreak.  Interviews of food-handlers and investigations on ingredient source and food preparation are underway.  The health departments explains that epidemiologists who are investigating this foodborne illness case can work faster with more information.  They urge the public to report information to health officials, even if they didn’t become ill themselves, as a way to help rule out the possible sources.  At this time, they are relying on any information that can be given to them.  Sometimes finding out what people have eaten and did not become ill is as valuable as identifying what those who became ill consumed.

The public health medical director for the Alexandria area, Dr. David Holcombe, explains that food related incidents aren’t uncommon, particularly in big social organizations like the softball fundraiser.  Holcombe explains that vigilance is important has the holiday season approaches and urges people to remember to not cross-contaminate surfaces, refrigerate food properly, and cook food thoroughly.

How Do I Know if I Have Salmonella?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) an estimated 1.2 million people become ill of Salmonella infection each year.  Approximately 450 are fatal.  The very young, the very old, and those with a compromised immune system are more likely to experience severe infections, while those with a healthy immune system generally have mild symptoms and recover without medical attention as the infection runs its course, though it may be several months until normal bowel activity resumes.

Symptoms generally include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever and often occur between 12 to 72 hours after consuming infected food.  The illness tends to last between 4 to 7 days.  While most recover without treatment, some may experience severe diarrhea that requires the infected individual to be hospitalized for dehydration.  Additionally, the infection may leave the digestive tract and enter the bloodstream.  This allows the infection to enter other parts of the body, which is very dangerous.  If not treated quickly with antibiotics may even result in death.

For some, Salmonella may even result in joint pain though a secondary illness known as reactive arthritis.  This can last anywhere from months to year, even causing chronic arthritis in some individuals.  Often those afflicted with reactive arthritis often develop additional symptoms of irritation of the eyes and painful urination.

Preventing Salmonella Infection

There is no vaccine available for Salmonella infection, there are still some things that can be done to help protect yourself and your family.  While not the only vehicle for becoming infected, foodborne infection is the primary way most people become infected.  Often foods of animal origin can be contaminated with Salmonella, as it is a naturally occurring bacteria in the gut of many animals.

To prevent Salmonella infection, avoid eating foods that are raw or undercooked such as: eggs, poultry, and meats.  Use a meat thermometer to ensure proper internal temperature based on the specific meat requirements.

Keep uncooked meats separate from ready-to-eat foods, cooked foods, and produce.  Cross-contamination is another key way that Salmonella can make its way into our system.  Wash hands before and after preparing foods, be sure cutting boards, knives, and other utensils that have come in contact with raw meats are thoroughly washed before touching ready to eat foods or produce.

Those who have contracted salmonellosis, the illness associated with Salmonella infection, can take additional steps to prevent the spread of the illness to others.  Those who are infected should not prepare food or drinks for others until their diarrheal symptoms have resolved.

Beyond foodborne infection, contact with animals that are known for carrying Salmonella on their bodies should be avoided by the very young and immune compromised individuals.  Hands should be washed thoroughly after direct and even indirect contact of reptiles such as: turtles, snakes, iguanas, and other lizards.  Wash hands thoroughly after direct or indirect contact with chickens and other livestock.

Salmonella lawsuits