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Local salmonella outbreak baffles health pros

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Health Department still investigating source of increased numbers of infected patients in Caldwell County

By LPR Staff
Editor/POST-REGISTER

Over the last month, nearly three dozen Caldwell County residents have fallen victim to a common, but often misunderstood, foodborne illness.
Public health officials reported this week that 31 patients, mostly

from Lockhart and the surrounding communities, have tested positive for salmonellosis, an infection caused by salmonella bacteria, which is often related to improperly prepared food. Historically, Caldwell County has documented between seven and ten cases of the infection annually.

“We are investigating a series of [infections],” said Doug McBride of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) on Tuesday. “At this point, we can’t find a confirmed association with any restaurant or gathering, or a specific food or drink. The most recent onset date we’re aware of was June 25, but we are still getting reports of cases.”

McBride said the salmonellosis cases started presenting in mid-June and spread rapidly for a few weeks, but he indicated reports have leveled off, leading health officials to hope the worst of the infection is in the past.

“The incubation period is normally between three hours and three days,” he said. “So reports are going to come up quickly after an exposure. While this is not a life-threatening illness in and of itself, it can be serious, especially for individuals with underlying health problems who can be more susceptible.”

Salmonellosis usually presents with diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever, with onset usually starting within three days of the patient eating a contaminated food. Symptoms can be accompanied by chills, headache, nausea and vomiting, and often lead to dehydration. However, because symptoms are rarely life-threatening and often disappear on their own within four to seven days, many patients do not seek medical advice for the disease. All told, more than 1.4 million cases of the infection are reported annually in the United States.

“We’ve seen half a dozen confirmed cases since our first case on June 15,” said Dr. Kim Wheeler of Lockhart Family Medicine. “But during that time, we had more than 50 patients come in with diarrhea and other stomach symptoms. Some of those aren’t going to be salmonella, and others, the patients aren’t going to go get the tests done – so we really don’t know how many cases altogether we have.”

Dr. Randall Kirtley of Seton Family Health Center said he has been working with DSHS on the salmonella “outbreak” as a county health issue, and stressed there is no need for area residents to panic.

“They haven’t found it yet, but there probably is an associative cause and they’re going to find it,” Kirtley said. “In the meantime we have seen the salmonellosis cases, but we have also seen a stomach virus going around that’s pretty nasty, so just because someone might be feeling bad, that doesn’t mean they have the salmonella. Also, when you think about it, yes, 31 cases seems like a lot, but really in the grand scheme, what is the population of Caldwell County, and what kind of number really defines an outbreak?”

In fact, Kirtley said, salmonella is not contagious, and cannot be transmitted through human contact; however, it is possible to contract the infection through contact with live fowl, rodents and reptiles.

“One thing that people don’t know about or think about is that sometimes the salmonella bacteria can be picked up from handling fowl, pet reptiles or pet rodents,” he said. “And with that, it really comes down to a matter of good hand-washing and good hand hygiene.”
Wheeler too stressed the importance of proper hygiene, especially when handling food.

“A lot of times what happens is that someone that prepares food doesn’t wash their hands properly and contaminates the food,” she said. “And then whoever eats that food might get sick. Also, with the heat, one thing we’re considering is that people might be leaving food out longer than they probably should before eating it, and that could be part of the underlying cause.”

Both Wheeler and Kirtley said the numbers of patients they see presenting with salmonella symptoms have decreased since late June, leading to increasing confidence that Caldwell County has rounded the corner.

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