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Highly Contagious Salmonella Infections Seen in Nursing Homes

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May 23, 2001 -- Most people are familiar with bacteria such as salmonella causing food poisoning -- the painful cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting that follow a meal that was undercooked or improperly stored or handled. But CDC scientists in Atlanta are reporting a far more serious outbreak of salmonella -- one that doesn't come from food, but was passed from person to person and didn't respond to the antibiotic used most often to treat the infection.

The first recorded outbreak of infection with this resistant type of salmonella occurred in nursing homes in Oregon; it is described in the May 24 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. But CDC epidemiologist Frederick J. Angulo, DVM, PhD, tells WebMD that another outbreak has since hit a Florida hospital and nursing home.

What is particularly troubling about these outbreaks is the evidence that infection was spread by patient-to-patient contact, which suggests this type of salmonella is much more infectious than the previously recognized strains.

"Usually it takes a lot of salmonella, a very high dose, to infect someone," says Glenn Morris, MD, chairman of the department of epidemiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Morris, a nationally recognized expert on salmonella, was not involved in the study.

The fact that such a high dose is usually needed is why "we don't see outbreaks of salmonella in day care centers," says Angulo. But with this specific type of salmonella bacteria, he says, it only takes about 10 of the organisms to infect another person. That means careful hand washing by patients must be ensured and other strenuous infection control measures be implemented and strictly enforced, he says.

This type of salmonella infection hasn't been seen in the U.S. since the 1960s. Before then, it was common for patients in hospitals to pass a variety of bacteria -- including salmonella -- to other patients.

"But then we instituted infection-control measures, and [this type of] infections became rare," Angulo says. "In developing countries, salmonella outbreaks [in hospitals] are still very common."

What's most concerning about this new strain of salmonella is that it is difficult to treat. Almost all salmonella infections are easily treated with antibiotics such as Cipro, but this new strain is the exception.

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