A new analysis of Campylobacter infections among workers at a Virginia poultry plant offers hints about which employees more likely to fall ill from the bacteria. Government researchers examined health data for plant employees from January 2008 through May 2011 and found that 29 Campylobacter cases had been confirmed during that time period. Their findings reveal three characteristics of workers who were more likely to be sickened:

  • Recently employed: A full 83 percent of these patients had worked at the plant less than a month before falling ill, suggesting that illness is more common among new employees.
  • Worked in the live-hang area: Those whose job involved hanging live chickens were far more likely to be infected than those working in other parts of the facility. Of those sickened, 62 percent worked in a live-hang area.
  • Resided in diversion centers: Almost all the employees who contracted Campylobacter infections (26 out of 29) lived in state-operated diversion centers. The authors say the high illness rate among this group may be due to the fact that diversion center residents are disproportionately assigned to live-hang areas, where they are more likely to be exposed to the bacteria.

The fact that new employees fell ill more frequently than those who had been there more than a month is consistent with findings from other studies, which have suggested that workers develop immunity to the bacteria during the first few weeks of work. The analysis, conducted by health officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health, also revealed that, of the 1,716 employees who visited the plant’s medical office in 2010, 16 percent (273 people) were seen for gastrointestinal symptoms. Between January and September of 2011, that figure was 15 percent. In actuality, say the researchers, the number of gastrointestinal illnesses and Campylobacter infections among plant employees were likely much higher than these figures suggest. “The numbers of cases of Campylobacter infection and gastrointestinal illness that we found among plant employees are likely an underestimation of the true numbers,” note the authors. “This may be due to an unwillingness to report illness because of the plant’s lack of paid sick leave and employees’ difficulty in accessing medical care.” In light of these findings, the authors recommend that poultry processing companies take measures to reduce employee exposure to Campylobacter, especially in live-hang areas. Such steps include improving facility sanitation, modifying ventilation systems and installing hands-free soap dispensers. Management should also train workers in hand hygiene and use of protective equipment, and should review illness records to ensure that Campylobacter cases are detected. Symptoms of Camplyobacter infection generally appear two to five days after exposure, and include abdominal cramping, fever and diarrhea, which can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. In most cases, the illness resolves itself in about a week, but infections can be more serious in people with compromised immune systems. The study will be published in Emerging Infectious Diseases in February. A copy of the early release is available here.