The Department of Health is investigating a possible outbreak of foodborne illness in Brooklyn

City health officials are investigating a potential outbreak in Brooklyn of campylobacter, a bacterial infection that causes flu-like stomach symptoms.

Campylobacter is a gastrointestinal illness that can come from eating raw or undercooked poultry or anything that comes into contact with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People can also get it through contact with animals that carry the bacteria and by drinking contaminated water.

In Brooklyn, health officials said roughly 50 cases have been reported in the area since the beginning of the month. A spokesman for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) declined to specify which neighborhoods saw the spike.

One health expert said many more cases were likely to go undiagnosed.

“Whenever you have an outbreak of some kind of foodborne illness, most likely when you look at the actual number of cases reported, it underestimates, and in some cases greatly underestimates, the actual number of cases that have occurred,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, Professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.

People suffering from diarrhea, often bloody, or fever – key symptoms of Campylobacter – may not go to the doctor. And even if they do, the healthcare professional may not test their stool for bacteria. This is the main way doctors detect the genetic material of bacteria.

Unlike COVID, it cannot be detected in the city’s sewage system and is not usually spread from one person to another. Most people recover in about a week without antibiotics.

The Brooklyn outbreak comes as the number of similar spikes across the country is rising, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The average number of outbreaks reported each year from 2004 to 2009 was 22; it was 31 from 2010 to 2012 and 29 from 2013 to 2017,” according to the CDC.

More cases are likely never reported, says the CDC, which estimates that “Campylobacter affects 1.5 million U.S. residents each year.”

People with a stomach infection usually start experiencing symptoms two to five days after exposure, and they last about a week, according to the World Health Organization. The infection causes fever, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

They are usually not life-threatening, but they can be for the very young and old and people with compromised immune systems. In a small percentage of people, the infection can spread to the blood and cause other conditions such as arthritis, Guillain-Barre syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome.

Last month, some infected people were briefly hospitalized after a recent outbreak in Baltimore linked to an event with multiple food stands.

In Brooklyn, health officials are still trying to find the cause of the outbreak, according to DOHMH spokesman Patrick Gallahue.

That process can take weeks or even months, according to Lee, who created the computer forecasts used by federal officials to deal with the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic.

First, city health officials must scramble to identify as many people with the infection as possible. These people are then given questionnaires so that health officials can find out some of the usual food sources.

“It may take some time to figure things out and whether a contaminated food source should be removed from the market,” Lee said.

In one multistate outbreak, infections were linked to contact with puppies in pets, according to lab reports cited by the CDC. Fifty-six people, many of whom worked at stores selling puppies, were infected from January 2019 to March 2021, the CDC said.

Most outbreaks are linked to poultry, unpasteurized dairy products, seafood and untreated water. The bacterium is more common in low-resource countries, and about one in five infections reported to CDC’s FoodNet are traced to people traveling, according to the federal agency.

New Yorkers experiencing symptoms should contact their doctors, Dr. Lee said.

Lynn Shulman (D-Queens), chairwoman of the City Council’s Health Committee, said she was informed by DOHMH officials about the latest outbreak.

“It just goes to show how vigilant we have to be constantly after COVID,” she said. “We have to have a comprehensive plan to deal with things like this.”

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