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Campylobacter jejuni proven to cause disease in chickens

Scanning electron micrograph of Campylobacter jejuni bacteria.
Scanning electron micrograph of Campylobacter jejuni bacteria.
Obtained from the CDC Public Health Image Library. Image credit: CDC/ Dr. Patricia Fields, Dr. Collette Fitzgerald. PD-USGOV-HHS-CDC.

Campylobacter jejuni was thought to be a harmless member of the microbial community that inhabits the guts of chickens bred for human food but new research has shown the bacteria can cause disease in some species of chicken raised for human food. Paul Wigley and colleagues at the Institute for Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool proved chickens can become ill from Campylobacter jejuni for the first time. The research was published in the July 1, 2014, edition of the journal mBio®.

Campylobacter jejuni can cause human illness. The symptoms include fever, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. The disease lasts between one day and seven days in humans and severe cases can be treated with antibiotics. One possibility of treating the 1.3 million cases of infection in the United States that occur every year is the development of an antibiotic resistant strain of Campylobacter jejuni. Many bird species are known to carry the bacteria and suffer no ill effects that are known at present.

The researchers infected four commercial breeds of broiler chickens with Campylobacter jejuni. Only one of the four breeds developed significant disease traits from the infection. All four breeds of chicken that were infected with Campylobacter jejuni had similar levels of bacterial infection in their gut. This discovery indicates that transmission of the disease to humans is not breed dependent.

The people of the United States consume 8 billion broiler chickens each year. The discovery that Campylobacter jejuni can cause disease in chickens is expected to produce changes in breeding and the development of vaccines against the bacteria that will probably be administered in chicken feed. This action may produce the development of an antibiotic resistant strain of the bacteria that not only kills chickens but could be fatal in humans. Chickens have been found to have a more robust immune response to the bacteria than humans.