The outbreak, which originated in Cleveland County, originated at a Sept. 7 barbecue attended by as many as 5,000 people. In the days following, people started showing up at local hospitals with symptoms of salmonella—which can include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain—all of which were linked to the barbecue. As of Wednesday, 103 cases have been reported, almost all in Rutherford and Cleveland counties approximately 50 miles from Charlotte. Health experts believe it is very unlikely that the outbreak will spread to the Durham area.
The outbreak appears to be winding down. So far, 13 people have been hospitalized as a result of the outbreak, but as of Thursday all had been discharged. The last reported date of illness onset was September 16th, according to a press release from the Cleveland County Health Department, which is one of the agencies investigating the outbreak.
“We saw people getting ill as early as the day of the picnic up through the 16th and no one after that, so we’re confident that whatever’s causing the illness is no longer there,” said Nicole Lee of the North Carolina Division of Public Health.
Currently, the Division is conducting an investigation into the outbreak, coordinating with local health departments to gather data and trace the ultimate sources of the infection. As of Thursday, the exact food item responsible for the outbreak had not been pinpointed.
“We are in the process [of pinpointing a source] now," Lee said. "Over the past week…we were able to narrow it down to the barbecue and create a questionnaire that was specific to the foods that were eaten there.”
It may not be possible to pinpoint the exact food which caused the outbreak, Lee added, as cross-contamination and other factors may be an obstacle for the investigation.
It appears unlikely that the outbreak will spread beyond the Shelby area. Only six cases have been reported outside of Cleveland County and nearby Rutherford County, including one in South Carolina. Salmonella is only transmissible from person to person through infected stool.
Dr. Chris Woods, an infectious disease specialist at Duke Medicine, expressed surprise that the outbreak was not more widespread, given the number of people who were potentially exposed to contaminated food at the barbecue.
“I’m not too surprised that [the outbreak] happened," Woods said. "One of the surprising things so far [is that] you’re looking at 70 to 100 people becoming ill. Out of 5,000 I would have expected more.”
Woods explained that salmonella and other bacteria are quite prevalent in store-bought meat and poultry.
“Most chicken on the shelf if you go to a grocery store is going to have either salmonella or campylobacter bacteria on it anyway,” Woods said. “So that’s why you get all that information about being very careful handling chicken or pork or turkey, et cetera.”
Helen White of the Rutherford County Health Department said that possible next steps include further education and prevention efforts. Given that fewer and fewer new cases are being reported, the main point of the investigation is to determine ways of preventing future outbreaks.