A few days ago, a blog entry was posted on Food Poison Journal alerting readers to an unusually high number of individuals diagnosed with Guillian-Barré Syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, along a small stretch of the United States-Mexico border. Today, the number of people diagnosed with Guillian-Barré Syndrome has risen to 24.
Health officials in both the United States and Mexico have been investigating the cluster of illnesses and believe that this rare disorder may have been triggered by Campylobacter infection, a common diarrheal foodborne illness characterized by diarrhea (often bloody), abdominal pain, malaise, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Guillian-Barré Syndrome often occurs a few days or weeks after a person has had symptoms of a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral or bacterial infection; in fact, two-thirds of affected individuals have had a preceding infection. Campylobacter jejuni is the most common pathogen that elicits Guillian-Barré Syndrome.
According to a recent article by JoNel Aleccia, “At least four of the GBS patients have been confirmed to be infected with Campylobacter bacteria, meaning there’s a good chance the others were, too, officials said.” Officials are hoping to quickly determine the source of the Campylobacter infections.
Of the victims, 17 are reportedly from Mexico and 7 from the United States. Although Guillian-Barré Syndrome can affect a person at any age, it appears that most of those sickened are adults ranging in age from 40 to 70. Some have been left extremely impaired as a result of acquiring the disorder.
GBS is a serious neurological disorder involving inflammatory demyelination of peripheral nerves. It can occur spontaneously or after certain events such as infections. Illness is typically characterized by the subacute onset of progressive, symmetrical weakness in the legs and arms, with loss of reflexes. Sensory abnormalities, involvement of cranial nerves, and paralysis of respiratory muscles also can occur. A small portion of patients die, and 20% of hospitalized patients can have prolonged disability.
Campylobacter is found commonly in a wide variety of healthy domestic and wild animals including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, wild birds, dogs, cats, rodents, and marine mammals. The bacteria usually live in the intestines as part of the animal’s normal flora, and is shed in the feces. Accordingly, it is typically caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry or meat, unpasteurized milk or contaminated water.