Campylobacter is a genus of bacteria, family Spirillaceae that derives its name from the Greek word Kampylos meaning "curved rod." The bacteria can swim rapidly by means of thin filaments (flagella) that act like propellers. The cells are about 2 micrometers long. Campylobacter species have complex nutritional requirements. They utilize amino acids and organic acids as energy sources and are often isolated from sediments where they use a variety of oxidized nitrogen and sulfur compounds including elemental sulfur. Hydrogen and formate are the preferred energy sources under anaerobic conditions; acetate is a good carbon source.1

There are many species of Campylobacter and in recent years the classification has changed considerably. Members of this group are animal parasites or pathogens frequently isolated from clinically healthy and diarrheic animals. Campylobacter species are found worldwide. Campylobacter fetus has been reported wherever sheep and cattle are kept and also has caused abortions in mink, goats, and horses.

Wild and domestic birds are considered as major reservoir of Campylobacter bacteria that have been found in 35% of migratory birds, 50% of town-dwelling pigeons, and 20%-70% of gulls. Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli occur naturally among wild and domestic birds and sometimes cause diarrhea.

Human Pathogens

Several species of Campylobacter cause disease including C. coli, C. jejuni, C. lari, C. upsaliensis, although most human cases of campylobacteriosis are caused by C. jejuni. Many species of this group of bacteria produce almost identical symptoms which are similar to those caused by Salmonella. Campylobacter is somewhat unusual in that one possible complication of the disease is Guillain-Barré (G-B) syndrome, a relatively rare neurological disease characterized by progressive weakening of the muscles. Although other bacteria can trigger G-B syndrome, Campylobacter is thought to be responsible for nearly half of all G-B cases in the United States.2

Campylobacter jejuni is a major human pathogen that secretes an exotoxin that is similar to cholera toxin.1,4 It is acquired from an infected person or a domestic animal (usually a cat), food (poultry, meat, and milk), or water and colonizes the intestines where it produces symptoms that are very similar to those seen in diarrheal diseases. The infection may be transmitted from person to person by sexual contact.6 In humans, a flu-like illness with fever and general malaise will often precede the development of cramping watery and often bloody diarrhea. Severe abdominal pain can be confused with appendicitis. Vomiting is uncommon. Bacteremia can occur in the elderly. A reactive arthritis may also occur after resolution of the diarrheal illness. Mortality rates associated with C. jejuni in the US have been estimated at 1 per 1000 cases.5

Photo by CDC/ Dr. Patricia Fields, Dr. Collette Fitzgerald

Zoonotic Pathogen

Campylobacter jejuni is a cause of canine diarrhea. The bacteria are found much more often in puppies than mature dogs and even more often in kennel populations than among household dogs. Young children have closer exposure to sick puppies and are, therefore, more susceptible to fecal-oral transmission.

Turtles, in addition to being carriers of Salmonella species, may also carry C. fetus which can cause meningitis and proctitis in humans. Pet ferrets can transmit several zoonotic diseases to humans, including campylobacteriosis. Cats with diarrhea pose a great zoonotic risk with young cats more likely being the carriers.4 C. coli infections have been implicated in the development of meningitis, septicemia, and abortions. C. upsaliensis causes abscesses, while C. showde, C. rectus, C. curvus, and C. concisus have been isolated from persons with periodontal disease.

Food Contaminant

Campylobacter is unique among food-poisoning bacteria in that it is not normally able to grow in foods. This is because it has specific atmospheric requirements for growth and can only grow at temperature above ambient. The temperature range for growth is 30-45°C. The bacteria can survive for a short time at refrigeration temperature, but die out slowly at freezing temperature.5 Campylobacter bacteria have been isolated from beef, pork, lamb, raw milk, shellfish, mushrooms and salads, although they have evolved to preferentially colonize the chicken gut with fresh poultry being more heavily contaminated than frozen. Poultry flocks colonized by C. jejuni have no apparent symptoms. Once the flock was infected by Campylobacter, biosecurity measures became useless. Therefore, additional actions are necessary to fight this foodborne pathogen, such as vaccination, bacteriocin treatment, prebiotics (non-digestible ingredients, such as fructo-oligosaccharides), or probiotics. Prohibition of antibiotics in poultry feed in Europe and the problems inherent in developing new vaccines make probiotics a promising prophylactic alternative to control C. jejuni in broiler chickens during rearing at the farm level7


  1. Roger Y. Stanier, John L. Ingraham, Mark L. wheelis, Page R. Painter. The Microbial World
  2. Abigail A. Salyers, Dixie D. Whitt. Microbiology: Diversity, Disease, and the Environment
  3. David B. Dusenbery. Life at Small Scale: The Behavior of Microbes
  4. David Schlossberg. Infections of Leisure
  5. Richard Lawley, Laurie Curtis, Judy Davis. The food safety hazard guidebook
  6. Parija. Textbook of Microbiology & Immunology
  7. Recent Advances in Screening of Anti-Campylobacter Activity in Probiotics for Use in Poultry Manuel J. Saint-Cyr,1 Muriel Guyard-Nicodème,2 Soumaya Messaoudi,1 Marianne Chemaly,2 Jean-Michel Cappelier,1 Xavier Dousset,1,* and Nabila Haddad1,* Front Microbiol. 2016; 7: 553.



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