Salmonella is a bacteria found in a variety of plants and animals. There are two types that are widely known to cause infection in people: nontyphoid salmonella, which leads to the infection Salmonellosis, and typhoidal salmonella, which causes typhoid fever. The one linked to the outbreaks is the nontyphoid type. Salmonellosis occurs when there are enough salmonella bacteria in the intestines to survive and multiply. Most people infected with salmonella are not made severely ill, but certain groups (the elderly, infants, and the immmunocompromised) are more vulnerable to serious illness from it.
Most Salmonellosis infections come from the consumption of raw poultry, fish, pork, beef, and unpasteurized milk products. Unwashed fruits and vegetables can also cause infection. Some can come from the handling of infected reptiles, like snakes, turtles, and lizards. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Infection usually lasts four to seven days in people not in one of the vulnerable categories. Every year around 19,000 people need to be hospitalized for salmonellosis, and around 380 die. Treatment for a hospitalized individual is usually antibiotics, rehydration therapy, and antipyretic medication. Most people who are not hospitalized can recover by resting and drinking lots of fluids.
Fortunately, salmonella is not a difficult bacteria to kill. Heat is the easiest way to kill it, and any food that belongs to one of the above groups can be cooked to a temperature that will kill most of the bacteria. Soap and water also kill salmonella, so it is advised to wash your hands after handling raw meat or any other source of infection, like reptiles.
The current salmonella outbreaks have resulted from a variety of sources. One is frozen tuna of the kind used in sushi. Until the outbreak is over, it is advised to not eat sushi or other raw fish. Another comes from frozen chicken, specifically brands of raw, stuffed chicken. Poultry should be cooked to at least 165 degrees, and when handling raw chicken, wash hands before and after. A particularly bad case in Portland sickened 53 people who attended the Open Source Bridge Conference at the Eliot Center in Portland. The cause of the outbreak in that case remains unknown. Recently, a peanut company executive was found guilty of selling tainted peanut butter. Evidence was shown that not only was he aware of the potential salmonella outbreak, he falsified information to get the tainted product on the shelf.
[Image via Wikipedia/Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH]