Bacteria in infected food may spread through sexual contact

June 8, 2021
Bacteria in infected food may spread through sexual contact

A common foodborne infection – caused by the Campylobacteria – may also be spread through sexual contact, said infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Katrin Kuhn, an assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology in the Hudson College of Public Health, the University of Oklahoma (OU).

Campylobacter infections usually occur when people eat poultry that has not been cooked thoroughly or when juices from uncooked poultry make their way into other food. Infections can also be caused by drinking unpasteurised milk or water that has been contaminated by the faeces of infected animals.

A surprising outbreak of Campylobacter infections in northern Europe among men who have sex with men spurred research, the results of which showed that the rate of Campylobacter infection was 14 times higher in men who have sex with men than the control subjects. However, the results are still relevant to people of any sexual orientation who engage in sexual behaviour that may involve faecal-oral contact.

The low infectious dose of Campylobacteria additionally makes transmission easier, much like Shigella, which can be transmitted through food or sexual contact. While Shigella and Campylobacter have low infectious doses, Salmonella has a high infectious dose, meaning people must ingest a significant amount of the bacteria before they become ill. All three bacteria were used as comparisons in the study.

Dr. Kuhn said Campylobacter infections were probably more prevalent than the numbers recorded; for every positive diagnosis epidemiologists estimate that 20 more people are infected and are especially in danger if they also have compromised immune systems. In some cases, infection can result in reactive arthritis, in which the body’s immune system attacks itself, causing pain in the joints; or lead to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a serious nerve disorder that can cause paralysis.

“COVID-19 has made people more aware of the importance of monitoring infectious diseases in general, not only during a pandemic,” Dr. Kuhn added. “There are many infections like the one caused by Campylobacter that make people sick. It’s important that we spotlight the fact that these diseases exist and that we continue to conduct research on their effects and modes of transmission.”

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