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Nasty Infectious Diseases You Want To Avoid - Yersiniosis

Updated on December 31, 2008


This is a common but underreported food-borne illness that was first recognized in the United States in 1976, where it was traced to tainted chocolate milk. Infants and children are the most common victims; children with abnormally high iron levels in their blood are particularly susceptible. While it can occur at any time, most cases appear during the winter in North America.


Cause - The disease is caused by eating tainted food or touching sick pets or contaminated people. The illness is caused by two species of rod-shaped bacteria, yersinia enterocolitica and yersinia pseudotuberculosis both of which are related to yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes human plague). All three belong to the family Enterobacteriacae (which also includes salmonella). The bacteria is found in swine and swine waste, cows, cats, dogs, (especially those from animal shelters), poultry, shellfish, ice cream, fruit, and vegetables, but most outbreaks are traced to chocolate milk, milk, mussels, oysters, tofu, pork, and contaminated water. Because the bacteria can grow even when refrigerated, high-risk foods include undercooked pork, beef that has been vacuum packed or fresh packed, unpasteurized milk, and cheese. Outbreaks are fairly common among day care centers. Infected pups and kittens can infect small children. The water from untreated wells, lakes, rivers, and streams may also be a source for the disease.


Symptoms - High fever (up to 104 degrees F), nausea and vomiting, bloody or mucousy diarrhea, abdominal pain (similar to appendicitis pain). It is often misdiagnosed as appendicitis. Children may be quite ill and may also suffer headache, sore throat, and loss of appetite. Symptoms usually last up to 10 days, although some children may be ill for a month. It is almost never fatal, however. Some women experience a skin rash on the front of the legs, together with painful legs. The bacteria may remain in the stool for up to three months afterward.


Diagnosis - Stool culture is the best test, although it is not easy to diagnose. Blood tests may detect antibodies a few weeks after the illness appears.


Complications - Bone infection, bloodstream infection, and meningitis may follow yersinosis, but these are rare except in the very old or those with weakened immune systems.


Treatment - Antibiotics are effective and should be taken up to seven days; serious illness may require hospitalization with intravenous medication. Analysis of stool samples can determine which antibiotic to use.


Prevention - If yersiniosis is suspected, contact the health department with details. Anyone with these symptoms at a child care center should see if others have a similar illness and it has been found in actual practice that a comprehensive and thorough investigation may be needed if there are many ill children. In order to avoid contracting the disease, it is advisable to stay away from drinking raw milk and improperly treated water from any source, but especially surface water. It is imperative to implement extremely rigorous precautions when handling meat products in order to prevent the potential cross contamination from raw foods to cooked or ready-to-eat foods. Food contact surfaces and hands must be meticulously sanitized before and after food preparation.



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