[Press & Publications] The Millennium Bug? Increase in illness linked to modern eating habits

February 2000

No 28

Work carried out by an international group of scientists, including one from the University of Leicester, has shed new light on a leading cause of diarrhoea in the UK.

They say the increased prevalence of the bug - which is twice as common as salmonella in causing diarrhoea - is a symptom of modern eating habits.

The scientists investigated the genetic make-up of the bacterium that causes the disease - which could lead to them developing better ways of finding and controlling it in the food chain.

The scientists, from The Sanger Centre, Hinxton, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of Leicester, Queen's University Belfast, University of Birmingham, and Vrije Universiteit, The Netherlands were involved in the research.

Dr Julian Ketley, of the internationally renowned Department of Genetics, University of Leicester, said: "The bacterium Campylobacter jejuni is the leading cause of bacterial food-borne diarrhoeal disease throughout the world.

"In addition, although uncommon, infection with C. jejuni is strongly associated with a form of neuromuscular paralysis known as Guillain Barré Syndrome.

"Campylobacter is a rather difficult bacterium to study and therefore we know relatively little about the mechanisms that are important in causing disease. The sequence of the complete genome gives scientists an important resource to use to investigate campylobacters and work out how they infect us."

Campylobacters are associated with many animals that people eat and so contamination of meat products, especially chicken, is common. In addition, a general change in eating habits - eating out more and eating more prepared food products - is thought to lead to a greater risk of getting Campylobacter-related disease.

Said Dr Ketley: "Human infection is usually acquired by eating improperly cooked meat or contamination of uncooked food. Another source is via contaminated milk or water. The bacteria colonise the intestines of a wide range of animals, but in non-immune people, infection frequently results in very unpleasant dysentery-like diarrhoea.

"This is a world wide problem. However, in industrialized countries with better standards of living, like the UK and US, the disease is usually observed in young adults. In contrast, in poorer countries it seems to be more common in young children.

"The number of cases of Campylobacter infection reported in England and Wales in 1998 has increased by 17% from the previous year, and is more than twice as common as diarrhoea due to the more newsworthy Salmonella.

"Despite its importance, effective disease prevention and control of Campylobacter in the food chain are hindered by a poor understanding of the biology of this organism and how it causes disease."

Writing in the scientific journal, Nature, the scientists have announced the unusual genome sequence of this bacterium. One of the most striking aspects of the group's findings is that several regions of the DNA sequence are 'hypervariable' -meaning that they can change very rapidly.

These stretches are mostly in genes involved in making and modifying surface structures on the bacterium. The apparently high rate of variation of these tracts may be important in the survival of these bacteria in the intestine, in the environment and on food.

Dr Ketley said the research findings could eventually lead to measures for combating the bacterium: "Probably the first practical measures will arise from a better understanding of how campylobacters can respond to adverse conditions. Using such information we will be able to design more specific hygiene systems in food production facilities. In addition, we will be able to devise better detection procedures so we can find this bacterium more easily."

For more information, please contact Julian Ketley on 0116 252 3434 email: ket@le.ac.uk

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Last updated: 09 February 2000 14:48
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