Food-borne pathogens carry devastating long-term effects

Long after the painful stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea associated with tainted food are over, many people suffer long-term health effects, mostly unrecognized, that are the result of food-borne pathogens. These lingering effects -- premature death, paralysis, kidney failure and a lifetime of seizures or mental disability -- may cause more disability, lost productivity, doctor visits and hospitalizations than the acute illnesses that follow exposure to a food-borne toxin.

A pair of reports released this week by the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention shed some light on this issue. They also point out that such pathogens hit hardest among the youngest patients.

Children under 4 are disproportionately the victims of poisoning by Campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella.And roughly half of all reported cases of food-borne illness affect those younger than 15. Because younger kids are smaller, it takes a smaller dose of harmful bacteria to sicken them, and their less-experienced immune systems don’t combat food-borne pathogens as effectively as do those of adults. Here’s a list of the chief culprits, the foods in which they’re most commonly found, and some of the possible long-term consequences of infection, all from the reports released Thursday:

Salmonella. The leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States, salmonella is harbored by foods with animal origins, including beef, poultry, milk and eggs. It causes 16,000 illnesses and 556 deaths per year. It can cause reactive arthritis -- painful and swollen joints mainly in the lower limbs -- from which patients generally recover in two to six months. Eye irritation and painful urination can also be long-term effects.

Campylobacter. Food-borne sources are raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk and contaminated water. It causes an estimated 2 million acute human illnesses (the vast majority in children under 4) and 124 deaths yearly. Long-term effects can include Guillain-Barre syndrome, an acquired and sometimes permanent paralysis, reactive arthritis and chronic arthritis.

E. coli O157:H7. Disproportionately affecting people under 19, E. coli can taint ground beef and other meats, green leafy vegetables, unpasteurized (or raw) milk and cheeses made from such milk. About 15% of children infected with E. coli O157:H7 develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure, chronic kidney problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome, narrowed gastrointestinal passages and neurological problems -- including seizures -- that can take as long as four years to resolve.

Listeria monocytogenes. An estimated 2,500 in the U.S. are infected with listeria each year, and roughly 500 die. Listeria monocytogenes contaminates not only meat or poultry but also vegetables grown in contaminated soil or fertilizer. Cold cuts, hot dogs, smoked seafood, raw milk and soft cheeses are common sources. In pregnant women, listeriosis can kill the fetus, cause premature delivery, or lead to mental retardation, hearing loss or brain damage in the newborn. Adults can suffer neurological effects and cardiorespiratory failure.