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Last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) revealed it is investigating an outbreak of extensively drug-resistant (XDR) salmonella infections in six provinces.
The memo said just under half of the 40 people infected in the "ongoing" outbreak were young children, aged five or younger.
To date, the investigation has identified two sources of infection:
Exposure to raw meat prepared for pets (raw pet food)
Contact with cattle, particularly calves
PHAC warned additional sources may be identified, and that Canadians should practice safe food handling "when preparing, cooking, or storing raw pet food to prevent illness."
But what exactly is XDR salmonella, and should parents be worried? Yahoo Canada spoke with infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch to find out.
What is XDR salmonella?
The bacteria is one of four key global causes of diarrhoeal diseases, which impact nearly 10 per cent of the global population annually, according to the World Health Organization.
The strain associated with the current outbreak is called extensively drug-resistant salmonella, meaning the bacteria is resistant to several conventional antibiotics.
Bogoch assured "there are treatment options, it's just they're not as broad as one would like."
What do we know about the outbreak?
Bogoch said this outbreak of salmonella has been protracted and it's not a "large" outbreak, seeing about 40 cases within several years.
"The reason we know it's an outbreak is because the genetic testing on the salmonella species has demonstrated that it's basically the identical species. So we know that there's a source for this, but it's not entirely clear what the source is," Bogoch explained.
An epidemiologic investigation has demonstrated a few commonalities, revealing there's a potential exposure to raw pet food and possible exposures to farm animals, specifically cattle.
Bogoch added though this outbreak isn't big, Canadians still have to be cautious.
"Without knowing the exact source, this can continue to grumble along and affect more people with time, so it's important to really get to the bottom of it."
Raw pet food — one of the suspected culprits — contains animal protein like poultry or beef, which hasn't been heated to an extent where it would kill the microorganisms inside of it.
"You can have salmonella, you can have E coli, you can have other bacteria as well," Bogoch explained. "Not only can it negatively impact the pet, but a person who's in contact with it can inadvertently infect themselves and get sick from this."
What are the signs & risks of salmonella infection?
According to Bogoch, salmonella infections are "pretty common" in Canada and elsewhere.
The signs of infection can be quite broad, with some people experiencing no symptoms at all while others experience severe illness.
Some specific symptoms can include:
fever and headache
Bogoch admitted the symptoms are fairly "non-specific" and can be caused by many other infections.
Risk of infection and illness
In the current outbreak, the expert explained there are 40 confirmed cases but likely more.
"It's realistic to suggest that there's a lot more cases that are on the milder end of the spectrum (of symptoms) and they don't come for medical attention," he claimed.
Bogoch also claimed the range of patients impacted by the outbreak is large, with more than half of kids impacted being younger than five, and the oldest patient being 91.
"Anyone can be impacted by this," he emphasized, adding people need to be careful when handling potential sources of the bacteria.
Risk factors for severe illness, however, increase for those under the age of one, and older than 60. Risk is also higher for those who are immunocompromised and those who take medications that suppress gastric acid.
Should Canadian parents be worried?
Bogoch said awareness is most important.
"I don't think you need to be concerned, you just need to be aware of this."
Those who have risk factors like using raw pet food in their home, should be "very mindful of having appropriate hand hygiene" when handling the food.
Hand hygiene is very important.Dr. Isaac Bogoch
This outbreak is something for parents of pets to consider too.
PHAC does not recommend feeding your pets raw meat, especially in households with young children or immunocompromised individuals. However, if you choose to, it recommends washing your hands and storing the raw food away from areas human food comes into contact with, and way from children.
"I'm not going to pretend to be a veterinarian... but pets can get sick from this as well," Bogoch said.
"This is an infection that's transmitted through what's known as the fecal-oral route," he explained, adding an infected pet can transmit salmonella to the owner.
"Again, hand hygiene is very important so we don't inadvertently infect ourselves... It's also good for about a million other reasons, but in this case, it'll help protect against XDR salmonella."