A sweeping outbreak of Salmonella bacteria has sickened people in at least 25 states, health officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported. So far, though, the exact source of the foodborne illness remains a mystery, and officials are asking for people with a suspected stomach flu to report it to their local health departments.
As of September 17, according to the CDC, there have been 127 cases of the outbreak reported. Of these, 18 people have been hospitalized, and none have died. Cases have been found from coast to coast, though Texas has seen the most, with 45 so far.
Salmonella are fuzzy-looking, rod-shaped bacteria that live harmlessly in the guts of many animals, including humans. But some types can cause illness when they get into our body from somewhere else. This usually happens when we eat food or water contaminated with the infected poop of an animal or another person, but you can also catch it from handling live animals like chickens and turtles.
Most cases of salmonella are mild and clear up without medical intervention, with symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps that last for a few days up to a week. Often, people don’t even know they contracted salmonella specifically, since the illness isn’t bad enough to merit a visit to the doctor for testing. But rarely, the infection can cause more severe, even life-threatening disease. This risk is higher for people with weaker immune systems, such as the elderly, the very young, and those with immune conditions. Every year, the CDC estimates, salmonella causes about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths.
The culprit in this outbreak is a subspecies called Salmonella Oranienburg. And the first reported cases emerged in early August. But beyond that, CDC officials are stumped as to what food product is behind the outbreak, which they describe as “fast-growing.” In the past, outbreaks of this particular germ have been linked to eggs, pet turtles, and even chocolate, so the list of potential suspects is pretty big.
For now, the CDC is advising anyone with symptoms that could be salmonella to visit a doctor and report their illness to their local health department. That report should include helpful details like foods eaten in the past week, since symptoms usually appear within six hours to six days of exposure. And if you’re experiencing severe symptoms like bloody diarrhea, a fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and/or heavy vomiting, you should immediately seek medical help.
To prevent catching salmonella and other nasty stomach bugs, the CDC recommends cooking your food at high enough temperatures, washing your hands, utensils, and surfaces often, rinsing fruits and vegetables under running water before eating or cutting them, and separating raw meat from other ingredients that won’t be cooked while making food. You should also resist the urge to smooch your backyard chickens.