Tainted chicken from a California-based supplier has led to salmonella infections in 278 individuals across 17 states. That number is likely to rise. Forty-two percent of those infected have been hospitalized, which is double the expected hospitalization rate for such an outbreak, the Los Angeles Times reports. No deaths have been reported.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling this a “complex outbreak,” as four out of seven of the strains of bacteria involved “exhibited drug resistance to one or more commonly prescribed antibiotics.”
Amid a shuttered government, CDC had to recall workers and has limited means of tracking the outbreak. Speaking to USA TODAY, Christopher Braden, director of food-borne illness at the agency, said Pulsenet, the agency’s computerized system for detecting outbreaks, was shut down when the outbreak occurred. “We were trying to do this without the automatic system, and it was nearly impossible,” Reynolds told the paper. Pulsenet is now back online.
Notwithstanding government shutdown, it’s likely we’re going to see more of these episodes. It’s due to a convergence of two trends.
1. Salmonella outbreak numbers are frustratingly stable.
“With salmonella, you see the numbers just stagnating and in some years, you have seen the numbers go up,” Elizabeth Hagen, USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, told me earlier this year. She said it’s due, in part, to outdated food-safety practices.
“We’ve been doing things largely the same way since the 1950s,” she explained. “We have an enormous proportion of our resources focused on looking at visual defects on the birds that don’t actually correlate with food-safety risk.”
2. Antibiotic resistance is growing in salmonella.
In September, CDC released a comprehensive report on the growth of antibiotic resistance in many strains of bacteria. Drug-resistant bacteria now account for 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths per year. Resistance is growing in diseases that are only found in hospitals, like the “nightmare bacteria” CRE, but also in diseases that are found in everyday locations, such as food packaging. “About 5 percent of non-typhoidal salmonella tested by CDC are resistant to five or more types of drugs,” the agency found. But these percentages have been growing since at least 1996, when it was almost nonexistent.
CDC describes the disease in awful terms: “Most persons infected with salmonella bacteria develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without treatment.” And those with the drug-resistant variety are more likely to end up in the hospital. In all, the CDC estimates, drug-resistant salmonella costs $365 million a year to treat.