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Health Department Probing Possible Foodborne Illness Outbreak in Brooklyn

Campylobacter is a gastrointestinal bug that can come from eating raw or undercooked poultry. About 50 cases have been reported so far to city health authorities.

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The Campylobacter can be found in undercooked poultry.

Illustration/Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock

City health officials are investigating a potential outbreak in Brooklyn of campylobacter, a bacterial infection that causes flu-like stomach symptoms. 

Campylobacter is a gastrointestinal bug that can come from eating raw or undercooked poultry or something that comes in contact with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People can also get it from drinking contaminated water or contact with animals that carry the bacteria.

In Brooklyn, health officials said approximately 50 cases have been reported in the borough since the start of the month. A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) declined to detail which neighborhoods have seen the spike. 

One health expert said it’s likely that far more cases have gone undiagnosed. 

“Whenever you have an outbreak of some type of foodborne illness, most likely, when you see the actual number of reported cases, it underestimates, and in some cases, greatly underestimates, the actual number of cases that have occurred,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.

People suffering from diarrhea (often bloody) or fever — key symptoms of Campylobacter — might not go to a doctor. And even if they do, the medical professional might not test their stool for the bacteria. That’s the primary way doctors detect the genetic material of the bacteria. 

Unlike COVID, it can’t be discovered in the city’s sewer system, and does not typically spread from one person to another. Most people recover in about a week without any antibiotics. 

The Brooklyn outbreak comes as the number of Campylobacter spikes throughout the country is on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The average number of outbreaks reported each year from 2004 through 2009 was 22; it was 31 from 2010 through 2012 and 29 from 2013 through 2017,” according to the CDC. 

More cases are likely never actually reported, states the CDC, which estimates that Campylobacter “affects 1.5 million U.S. residents every year.” 

People with the stomach infection typically begin experiencing symptoms two to five days after exposure and they last around a week, according to the World Health Organization. The infection causes fever, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. 

They are typically not life threatening, but can be for the very young and old and people with compromised immune systems. In a small percentage of people the infection can spread to the bloodstream and cause other ailments like arthritis, Guillain-Barré Syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome. 

Last month, some people infected were briefly hospitalized after a recent outbreak in Baltimore tied to an event with multiple food stands.  

In Brooklyn, health officials are still trying to find the cause of the outbreak, according to DOHMH spokesperson Patrick Gallahue. 

That process could take weeks, or even months, according to Lee, who created the computer forecasts used by federal officials to deal with the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic in 2009.

First, city health officials have to scramble to identify as many people as possible with the infection. Those people are then given questionnaires so health officials can figure out some of the common food sources. 

“It can take a while to actually figure things out and if a contaminated food source needs to be removed from the market,” Lee said. 

In one multistate outbreak, the infections were tied to contact with puppies at pet stories, according to lab reports the CDC cited. It affected 56 people, many of whom worked at stores selling puppies, from January 2019 to March 2021, the CDC reported. 

Most outbreaks have been tied to poultry, unpasteurized dairy products, seafood and untreated water. The bacteria is more common in low-resource countries, and about one in five infections reported to the CDC’s FoodNet are tracked back to people traveling, according to the federal agency. 

New York City residents experiencing symptoms should contact their doctors, said Dr. Lee. 

City Councilmember Lynn Schulman (D-Queens), who chairs the Health Committee, said she was briefed by DOHMH officials about the latest outbreak. 

“This just shows how vigilant we have to constantly be since COVID,” she said. “We need to have a comprehensive plan to deal with these kinds of things.”

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