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Several people sickened by bacterial outbreak in Sanders County

Food Poisoning
Posted at 10:26 AM, Jun 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-23 11:42:01-04

The source of a bacterial outbreak in Sanders County that caused several people to become ill has been confirmed.

State and county officials recently notified the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) that the Kennedy Creek water box has been associated with a Campylobacter outbreak.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has labeled this untreated water as a health concern and advised MDT to close off public access to the water.

After Sanders County Public Health officials confirmed several cases of infection from Campylobacter bacteria, the water from the untreated creek was tested and the presence of this bacteria was confirmed, according to MDT.

Over 20 people have tested positive for the bacterial infection and have reported diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, and fever after drinking water from the location.

Sanders County Public Health officials posted a public notice on May 13, 2022, advising against the consumption of water from the Kennedy Creek water box. County officials stated the water is not considered to be a safe source of drinking water. MDT also notes a sign is posted at the site stating that the water is not safe for human consumption.

The following information has been posted on the Sanders County Environmental Health Department Facebook page:

Kennedy Creek Campylobacter Outbreak (aka, Paradise Spring)
June 7, 2022 Update

1. Why are public health professionals concerned?

Sanders and Mineral counties, and the Montana DPHHS Communicable Disease and Epidemiology Section began investigating a Campylobacter outbreak in mid-May 2022. Approximately 20 cases of Campylobacter have been identified, 18 of which reported consuming water from the Kennedy Creek watering point over a period of approximately 2-3 weeks during late April and early May 2022. Of the 20 cases, 13 cases were known to have visited the hospital due to the severity of symptoms, and all reportedly had positive lab results after testing at the Clark Fork Valley Hospital. Isolates from two positive samples were sent to the DPHHS Environmental Laboratory and Campylobacter infection was confirmed. A water sample was taken from the discharge point and the DPHHS Environmental Laboratory successfully cultured Campylobacter from the sample.

As of Friday, June 3, 2022, the state laboratory has matched clinical and water sample specimens by whole genome sequencing, and the laboratory has stated the specimens are highly genetically related. This provides confirmatory evidence that these illnesses are the result of drinking water from the Kennedy Creek watering point.

2. What is Campylobacter?
Campylobacter infection, or campylobacteriosis, is caused by Campylobacter bacteria. It is the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States.

3. What are the symptoms of a Campylobacter infection?
People with Campylobacter infection usually have diarrhea (often bloody), fever, and stomach cramps. Nausea and vomiting may accompany the diarrhea. Symptoms usually start two to five days after exposure and last about one week.

Campylobacter infections may lead to hospitalization or other severe outcomes. People should call a doctor if they drank water from the Kennedy Creek watering point and are now experiencing the symptoms listed above.

4. What are the most common sources of Campylobacter outbreaks?
Poultry, raw milk, and untreated water are the most commonly identified sources of Campylobacter outbreaks in the United States. Regarding waterborne outbreaks, feces from domestic and wild animals can contaminate lakes and streams, including carriers showing no signs of illness.

5. Where is the Kennedy Creek watering point?
The Kennedy Creek watering point is located approximately one mile south of Paradise and within the Montana Department of Transportation highway right-of-way on railroad property. The watering point has been operational and used by the public as a drinking water source for many decades, and is open access with no restriction. The Montana Department of Transportation posts signage indicating the water is not potable.

6. Is the Kennedy Creek watering point a spring?
No. Kennedy Creek flows both above and below ground from its source to the river. Flow is variable throughout the year, with spring runoff increasing surface water flow in certain areas. The collection point is a PVC pipe laying in the bottom of an open creek channel and held in place by rocks.

7. Is Kennedy Creek water safe to drink?

Sanders County advises against consuming water from this watering point. It is not considered to be a safe source of drinking water. There are multiple places where animals, insects, and other sources of contamination have direct access to water prior to the watering point.

8. Where can I get more information?

Sanders County is available to share information with the public. Please contact Karen Morey, 406-827-6925, or Shawn Sorenson, 406-827-6909.

According to MDT, the untreated water is not from a spring but is, surface water that “is open to contamination from humans, animals, insects, and other forms of contamination typical of surface water.”

From the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website:

Campylobacter causes an estimated 1.5 million illnesses each year in the United States.

People can get Campylobacter infection by eating raw or undercooked poultry or eating something that touched it. They can also get it from eating other foods, including seafood, meat, and produce, by contact with animals, and by drinking untreated water.

Although people with Campylobacter infection usually recover on their own, some need antibiotic treatment.