Salmonella has been in the news lately due to an outbreak that health officials are calling the largest foodborne outbreak in U.S. history.
The salmonella outbreak is blamed for over 1,000 illnesses across the country - with 203 people requiring hospitalization since June 1, 2008.
What makes this outbreak particularly ominous is neither the FDA nor the CDC know what the source of the outbreak is.
Initially, the source was thought to be tomatoes. But on Wednesday, U.S. health officials added hot jalapeño peppers and cilantro (salsa) to the growing list of suspects. The first cluster of illnesses were linked to restaurants, leading federal officials to believe that food containing fresh tomatoes and jalapeno peppers were the culprits.
"Neither tomatoes nor jalapeños explain the entire outbreak at this point," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "We're presuming that both of them cause illness."
Some critics believe the government's inability to pinpoint an exact cause leaves the nation vulnerable to biological terrorist attacks.
Salmonella is responsible for most of the foodborne illnesses reported in the U.S. Salmonella is found in chickens, cows, turtles, iguanas and other reptiles. For that reason, reptiles are never appropriate pets for small toddlers or babies.
Salmonella lives in water, soil, feces, raw eggs and raw meats and can be transmitted to food contact areas such as kitchen surfaces and restaurant salad bars. Eggs and meats should be cooked thoroughly before eating. Wiping counters down with an alcohol solution kills the bacteria.
Symptoms of salmonella food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, headache, diarrhea (sometimes bloody), fever and abdominal cramps. Symptoms usually resolve without treatment in healthy individuals. People with weakened immune systems, babies and the elderly are most at risk for salmonella poisoning.
Good hand washing technique is the best prevention against the bacteria.
As always, consult your personal physician if you have any symptoms or questions. This has been your Medical Minute.