Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 7/25/2011 9:46:26 AM ET 2011-07-25T13:46:26

A cluster of cases of a rare illness that can lead to nerve damage and paralysis has been identified along a small stretch of the United States-Mexico border. An outbreak of food poisoning is the likely culprit, health officials in the two countries said.

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At least two dozen people in Yuma County, Ariz., and San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico, have been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome in the past month, with some left drastically impaired by the illness that triggers the body's auto-immune reaction.

“It’s really attacking the nerves,” said Shoana Anderson, office chief of infectious disease at the Arizona Department of Health Services. “All of the patients I’ve seen are not able to walk.”

Most of the victims, including 17 from Mexico and seven from the U.S., are adults who range in age from 40 to 70, although younger people also have been affected, Anderson said. Some patients have muscle weakness in their upper bodies as well as in their legs, she added. It's not clear how quickly they may recover.

Guillian-Barré Syndrome, or GBS, typically affects only about 1 in 100,000 people, according to government health statistics, so a cluster of 24 cases is cause for alarm, officials said. Although the condition often resolves on its own, recovery can be long and painful. And in rare cases, the illness can cause permanent disability and even death.

The sudden spate of GBS cases in the southwest looks to be the result of an outbreak of infections with Campylobacter bacteria, a common diarrheal foodborne illness typically caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry or meat, unpasteurized milk or contaminated water. It can also be spread by animals such as cattle and dogs.

At least four of the GBS patients have been confirmed to be infected with Campylobacter bacteria, meaning there’s a good chance the others were, too, officials said.

“It’s pretty convincing,” said Dr. Tim F. Jones, a national foodborne illness expert and the state epidemiologist for Tennessee. The germ can be hard to detect because it has to be cultured from stool specimens, he added.

GBS is serious complication of infection
GBS is the most serious complication of Campylobacter infection, with about 40 percent of the 3,000 to 4,000 cases seen in the U.S. each year attributed to that bacterium. Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the U.S., infecting an estimated 2.4 million people each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the bug typically causes sporadic infections, not widespread outbreaks, so that also drew the attention of health officials in Arizona and Mexico, along with representatives from the CDC.

The two countries are conducting a rare bi-national investigation, watching for new cases of GBS reported to doctors and hospitals and for new evidence of Campylobacter outbreaks.

Some U.S. states are reporting higher than normal rates of Campylobacter infections. In Wyoming, for instance, the state has confirmed 34 cases since June 1, four times as many as usual. No cases of GBS have been detected there, health officials said.

In Arizona and Mexico, health officials are pushing to determine the source of the Campylobacter infections through interviews with victims and other epidemiological research.

“Our big push is to figure out what’s causing this,” said Anderson. “It’s really important that to us to stop the underlying infection.”

Campylobacter infection, which can lead to GBS, is not spread from person to person, but through contact with contaminated food and other objects. To avoid infection, people should wash hands thoroughly after preparing food, before eating and after using the bathroom. Also wash hands after contact with pets.

Make sure to cook all poultry products thoroughly, so that they’re no longer pink and they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Use separate cutting boards to prepare meat and vegetables and wash all cutting boards, countertops and utensils with soap and hot water after preparing meat or other animal products.

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