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Health officials concerned over salmonellosis cases

State health officials have reported 24 cases of salmonellosis in Western Pennsylvania since Friday and say the number of cases will likely grow in coming days.

The officials won’t know until tomorrow, however, whether the infections were the same or different types — and therefore, whether the recent cases are just a statistical oddity or possibly part of a widespread outbreak.

“We’ve had this unusual spike in numbers. We don’t know if they’re all related, but we just can’t sit back and wait to find out,” said Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the state Department of Health.

The 24 cases have all been reported since Friday by doctors or hospitals in the regio, including some in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland counties. No hospital or physician has reported more than “one or two” cases each, McGarvey said today.

“We don’t know if it’s a coincidental spike — but 24, that’s out of the ordinary,” said McGarvey, noting that Allegheny County had just 43 cases in the first six months of this year. “If we saw eight or 10, we might say, ‘OK, maybe they all just got it at the same time.’ But not 24.”

Salmonellosis is an infection caused by salmonella bacteria, which can contaminate food or water. Generally, those who get it will suffer from diarrhea, fever and cramps for up to three days — but the illness can spread in those with impaired immune systems, children or the elderly.

Salmonellosis is not often fatal, but it can be if it spreads to someone’s bloodstream or intestines.

Because the onset is rapid, those cases reported since Friday likely involve people who have eaten contaminated foods or otherwise come in contact with the bacteria in the last week, McGarvey said.

All types of salmonella cause the same symptoms, but test results due tomorrow to determine the specific type of bacteria will help determine its source, McGarvey said.

“Some types are more associated with fruits and vegetables, some are more associated with chicken and meat,” McGarvey said. “You can also get it from reptiles — turtles, iguanas often carry it.”

The bacteria is spread through the feces of infected animals and humans, when microscopic particles are ingested. Food-borne salmonella can be killed by fully cooking meats and vegetables; hand washing is recommended after handling reptiles.

Each year, about 2,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported statewide. Nationally, there are 40,000 cases reported, including about 600 deaths. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the actual total number of cases may be 30 times as high, however, because milder cases may not be diagnosed.

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