Tracing the source of campylobacteriosis
Campylobacter jejuni is the leading cause of bacterial gastro-enteritis in the developed world. It is thought to infect 2-3 million people a year in the US alone, at a cost to the economy in excess of US $4 billion. C. jejuni is a widespread zoonotic pathogen that is carried by animals farmed for meat and poultry. A connection with contaminated food is recognized, but C. jejuni is also commonly found in wild animals and water sources. Phylogenetic studies have suggested that genotypes pathogenic to humans bear greatest resemblance to non-livestock isolates. Moreover, seasonal variation in campylobacteriosis bears the hallmarks of water-borne disease, and certain outbreaks have been attributed to contamination of drinking water. As a result, the relative importance of these reservoirs to human disease is controversial. We use multilocus sequence typing to genotype 1,231 cases of C. jejuni isolated from patients in Lancashire, England. By modeling the DNA sequence evolution and zoonotic transmission of C. jejuni between host species and the environment, we assign human cases probabilistically to source populations. Our novel population genetics approach reveals that the vast majority (97%) of sporadic disease can be attributed to animals farmed for meat and poultry. Chicken and cattle are the principal sources of C. jejuni pathogenic to humans, whereas wild animal and environmental sources are responsible for just 3% of disease. Our results imply that the primary transmission route is through the food chain, and suggest that incidence could be dramatically reduced by enhanced on-farm biosecurity or preventing food-borne transmission.