The Wyoming Department of Health is reporting a sharp increase statewide in potentially dangerous human Campylobacter bacterial infections this summer.

The department has identified 29 cases of Campylobacter infections in Wyoming residents statewide since June 1, which represents a 4-fold increase compared to historical data for the same time period. At least six people have been hospitalized. Nearly three-quarters of the case patients are male.

“While the increase in these infections appears to be sporadic with no single common source, it’s clear that animal-related illness is at least partially driving the increase,” said Kelly Weidenbach, epidemiologist with the department’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Program.

Campylobacter infection is one of the most common causes of bacterial diarrhea in the United States. Infected persons typically develop diarrhea (sometimes bloody), nausea, vomiting, stomach cramping, abdominal pain and fever for about one week.

“This illness can be extremely unpleasant, and can result in medical bills, missed work and loss of productivity,” Weidenbach said. “In some people, the effects can be life-threatening.”

In rare cases people may develop serious complications such as Guillain-Barré syndrome. The syndrome occurs when the immune system is triggered to attack the body’s nerves. It can lead to paralysis and usually requires intensive care.

Public health officials attempt to interview each reported case of Campylobacter infection in state residents. Among patients interviewed to date, exposure to animals, especially cattle and dogs, has been common. “In many cases, the animals were noted to be ill with diarrhea when the person had contact with them,” Weidenbach said. “Several have been ranchers or individuals who recently attended a cattle branding and who were accidentally exposed to fecal material.”

Campylobacter infection is common in farm animals and certain pets. A single ill calf can shed millions of bacteria in its feces. Campylobacter bacteria are also common in the feces of ill puppies and kittens. Campylobacter often causes illness in young animals, but infected older animals often have no symptoms. Humans are exposed to the bacteria in the fecal material and then become sick.

The Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, also part of the Wyoming Department of Health, performs genetic fingerprinting on the Campylobacter bacteria found in ill residents. Lab personnel have tracked strains of Campylobacter common to both humans and animals. These lab results, combined with patient histories, support the animal-human explanation for many reported cases.

“We want residents to be aware of this increase in human illness, and we want them to take actions to prevent illness among themselves and their family members,” Weidenbach said.

Recommended precautions include:

Washing hands with soap and water before eating or other hand-to-mouth contact.

If ill with diarrhea, wash hands frequently to minimize the chance of spreading the illness to others. Campylobacter is transmitted in feces.

Those ill with diarrhea who handle food for other people, work in a daycare/childcare setting or work as a healthcare provider with direct patient contact should stay out of work until at least 48 hours after the last bout of diarrhea or vomiting.

Those who work or volunteer where they have contact with animals should wear gloves while working and wash hands before moving to a different activity. Animals often have fecal material on their bodies. Wash hands thoroughly before drinking, eating or putting anything in the mouth.

Avoid consuming unpasteurized milk or products made from unpasteurized milk. Raw milk is often contaminated with fecal bacteria from the cows.