OKLAHOMA CITY AND DENMARK – Campylobacter infection, one of the most common foodborne diseases in the western world, can also be spread through sexual contact in Denmark, according to a new research finding by a faculty member at OU Hudson College of Public Health, in collaboration with colleagues.

The team’s research was published in Emerging Infectious Diseases , a journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is the first known study to demonstrate this mode of transmission for Campylobacter. At a time when COVID-19 has dominated infectious disease news, research is a reminder that many other pathogens are affecting life around the world on a daily basis. The study was led by infectious disease epidemiologist Katrin Kuhn, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at OU Hudson College of Public Health.

“This research is important for the public health service and for physicians as they discuss risks associated with sexual contact with their patients,” said Kuhn. “Although Campylobacter infection is usually not a serious disease, it does cause diarrhea, which can cause people to miss their jobs, lose productivity, or potentially lose their jobs. It poses an additional risk for people with underlying health conditions. ”

Campylobacter infections usually occur when people eat chicken that hasn’t been thoroughly cooked or when juices from undercooked poultry get into other foods. Infections can also be caused by drinking unpasteurized milk or water that has been contaminated by the feces of infected animals. However, these weren’t responsible for all cases of infection, Kuhn said, and she wondered if there was another route of transmission that wasn’t proven. An outbreak of Campylobacter infections in Northern Europe in men who have sex with men prompted her to study this population group in Denmark, where she worked at the beginning of the research.

The study results showed that the Campylobacter infection rate in men who have sex with men was 14 times higher than that of controls. Although the study focused on men who have sex with men, the results are relevant to people of any sexual orientation who behave sexually and may involve fecal-oral contact, Kuhn said.

Two other bacteria, Salmonella and Shigella, were used as comparisons in the study. Salmonella is mainly spread through infected foods, while Shigella can be transmitted through food or sexual contact. Salmonella has a high dose of infection, which means that people must ingest a significant amount of the bacteria before they get sick. However, Shigella and Campylobacter have low infectious doses, which makes transmission easier.

“This is another reason why we believe that Campylobacter, like Shigella, can be transmitted through sexual contact – because people can be infected when only small amounts of the bacteria are present,” said Kuhn.

Campylobacter infections are likely more common than the numbers show. Epidemiologists estimate that for every person who goes to the doctor and is diagnosed, 20 more people are infected, Kuhn said. Although treatment is usually only needed in severe cases, complications can occur, especially in people with compromised immune systems. In some cases, infection can lead to reactive arthritis, in which the body’s immune system attacks itself and causes joint pain. Infection can also lead to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a serious nerve disorder that can lead to paralysis.

“This is an interesting time as COVID-19 has raised people’s awareness of the importance of monitoring infectious diseases in general, not just during a pandemic,” she said. “There are many infections like Campylobacter that make people sick. It is important that we emphasize the fact that these diseases exist and that we continue to study their effects and modes of transmission. ”

Prior to joining OU Hudson College of Public Health, Kuhn was a senior epidemiologist for infectious diseases at the Statens Serum Institute in Denmark. Her work focused on food and waterborne infections and she was responsible for national surveillance for Campylobacter and Shigella. She started this study in Denmark and completed it after moving to Oklahoma. The Statens Serum Institute is the Danish national institute for infectious diseases and the most important institute for the monitoring and research of infectious diseases in Denmark.

“A formal collaboration between the OU Hudson College of Public Health and the Statens Serum Institute will lay a solid foundation for strengthening transatlantic research and, not least, improving the way we monitor, understand and prevent infectious diseases in Oklahoma.” said Kuhn.

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