Because of antibiotic resistance, 42 percent of patients stricken with salmonella tied to a California chicken farm have required hospitalization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday.
The outbreak's investigation, which has been hampered by the U.S. government shutdown, got a boost Wednesday with the announcement that 30 furloughed CDC employees were being called back to work.
"Ten were brought back to work on foodborne outbreaks," CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said.
So far, 278 people from 17 states have been reported ill from chickens traced to three Foster Farms plants in California. About 42 percent of the 183 patients for whom information is available have been hospitalized -- 76 in all -- which is an unusually high rate for Salmonella Heidelberg, said CDC spokesman John O'Connor.
"The typical hospitalization rate for salmonellosis is around 20 percent," he noted.
"Antibiotic resistance, as seen in this outbreak, may be associated with an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals," O'Connor added.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem, said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. "It's not an accident that this particular strain is resistant," he said. "I suspect it's resistant because of the overuse of antibiotics among farm animals."
Chicken live in squalor, Siegel said. "Ninety-five percent of chickens are grown in such horrific conditions that they're standing in poop and they end up infected with salmonella. If one chicken gets it, they all get it," he said.
All the chickens are treated with antibiotics, which causes the resistant bacteria to emerge, Siegel said. This use of antibiotics should be banned, he added.
In different tests, this strain of salmonella linked to Foster Farms has shown resistance to combinations of the following antibiotics: ampicillin, chloramphenicol, gentamicin, kanamycin, streptomycin, sulfisoxazole and tetracycline, O'Connor said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public alert on Monday after receiving reports that hundreds of people had been sickened, with most illnesses reported in California.
The CDC and state health departments continue to track infections, O'Connor said, "but like most federal agencies, CDC has furloughed a substantial portion of its workforce because of a lapse of appropriations. We are doing the best we can under these difficult circumstances to monitor clusters of foodborne illness and respond when necessary."
The political stalemate in Washington has shut down a vital monitoring system called PulseNet. CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said not having PulseNet, which compares DNA of patients' bacteria to locate clusters of disease around the country, was an "imminent threat to health and safety," USA Today reported.
Foster Farms is cooperating with the investigation. "We deeply regret any foodborne illness that may be associated with any of our products," Foster Farms President Ron Foster said in a statement.
Although the odds of getting salmonella from chicken are rare, Siegel advises cooking chicken thoroughly and preventing cross-contamination by keeping raw chicken away from other foods, cutting boards and utensils used for meal preparation. Always wash your hands after handling raw chicken, he added.
Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include diarrhea, cramps and fever. Some people get chills, nausea and vomiting, lasting up to seven days, according to the USDA. Although the condition usually gets better by itself, it can be serious, even fatal, for people with compromised immune systems, infants and the elderly.