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A 25-year-old British woman has contracted a rare, incurable autoimmune disorder after befriending a stray cat in Portugal.
Gemma Birch was on a weeklong holiday in Albufeira when she took in a feral feline who had been lounging on her patio, she told People magazine.
On the last night of her trip, Birch began feeling ill, with vomiting and diarrhea. She went on to experience faintness, and by the time her plane landed in the U.K., her stomach was severely swollen.
Initially, a week in hospital revealed she had contracted Campylobacter. The bacterium is a common cause of food poisoning — especially from raw or undercooked poultry or unpasteurized milk — but can also be acquired through contact with animals.
Most people get over symptoms within a week or two, but Birch’s case was unusual. She lost sensation in her legs, her arms felt weak, and, at one point, she had trouble breathing. She went on to be temporarily paralyzed.
Eventually, Birch was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). The condition is marked by a person’s own immune system mistakenly attacking the nervous system.
Symptoms range from brief muscle weakness to paralysis, which can last for a few weeks to many years, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Seventy per cent of people eventually make a full recovery, while others have permanent nerve damage. Sometimes, GBS is fatal.
It’s not contagious, but it can strike men and women of any age, with adults and older people being more prone. GBS affects about one in 100,000 people in the U.S. every year.
The exact cause isn’t known, but most cases start a few days or weeks after a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection, including infection with the Zika virus.
Birch likely acquired Campylobacter from that cat she adopted. The bacterium is shed in the stool of infected animals and is transmitted to humans by contamination of the hands after people handle the animals, inadvertently transferring germs to the mouth, according to the Ontario Veterinary College’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses’ Worms & Germs blog.
Even contact with pets, particularly dogs, can be a risk factor for campylobacteriosis. Some research points to the risk being associated specifically with contact with puppies or kittens.
However, dogs and cats less than six months of age, strays, and animals kept in facilities like catteries, kennels, and shelters are more likely to carry Campylobacter, according to Worms & Germs. Other household pets that can shed the bacterium include ferrets, hamsters, birds, and rabbits.
Dr. Chris White, a neurologist with Alberta Health Services, says that the Campylobacter jejuni species is seen in about 25 percent of cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. While he says it’s certainly possible to get the bacterium from an animal with diarrhea, he hasn’t had such a case in his career.
Of his catchment of about two million people, he sees between one and three GBS cases a month.
“It’s very, very rare,” White says. “Lots of people will have Campylobacter jejuni infections and never get GBS. Often, we don’t find any cause. It could be due to an infection we weren’t aware of.”
“GBS can be very disabling; it can be fatal,” he adds. “But for most people, it is a self-limited disease, and they’re back to feeling normal by a year. Eighty per cent or more are walking independently within a year; most patients will do well. Very severe illness may be left with about 10 to 15 percent of patients.”
If there’s a misconception related to GBS that White would want to address, it’s the false belief that it’s caused by vaccinations. The notion goes back to the 1970s, when there was an association between GBS and the swine-flu vaccine.
“But subsequent studies have shown little if any concern about getting vaccinated,” White says. ‘I encourage everyone not to let GBS dissuade you from doing that. I get the flu shot every year.”
Symptoms of GBS include tingling in the feet or hands; weakness on both sides of the body; vision problems; difficulty swallowing, speaking, or chewing; pain; coordination problems; abnormal heart rate; and problems with digestion or bladder control.
Although there’s no cure, treatments to manage symptoms include plasma exchange, which removes and replaces the liquid part of the blood, and high-dose immunoglobulin therapy (an infusion of antibodies).
Birch stayed in hospital for a month after being diagnosed, having immunoglobulin treatments, before spending another month in a different city. For four months after that, she was at a rehab centre, working on overcoming paralysis from the neck down.
While she’s doing much better, Birch gets sick more easily than she did in the past, given that GBS affects the immune system, she told People.
The risk of Campylobacter causing disease in the general population is low, but people with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to illness.
The Worms & Germs blog notes that young children should be supervised when playing with animals and should wash their hands afterward, especially before handling food.