Burritogate Continues: Qdoba Employee Unknowingly Infects Customers with Typhoid Fever

It’s been a bad week for burritos: On Sunday, Chipotle closed its locations in Portland and Seattle due to an outbreak of e. Coli. Now, it’s come out that a Qdoba employee who unknowingly had typhoid fever passed it on to customers, causing a small outbreak in Colorado. (Photo: Alamy)

Officials have traced a small outbreak of typhoid fever that infected three people in Colorado to a Qdoba Mexican Grill.

All three ate at the restaurant before becoming ill and two of the people were hospitalized after coming down with the bacterial infection, which can be life-threatening, officials from the Weld County Department of Public Health said in a press release on Tuesday. All three have recovered.

State officials traced the outbreak to an infected food handler at the restaurant, who showed no signs of having typhoid. (That food handler is currently not working at the restaurant and is receiving medical treatment.)

Typhoid fever, which is caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi, is rare in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 5,700 cases occur in the U.S. each year, and up to 75 percent of cases are acquired while people travel internationally. The infection is common in developing countries, where it affects about 21.5 million people each year.

The illness is usually contracted by eating food or drinking beverages that have been handled by someone who carries Salmonella Typhi, and it’s often passed on by poor hygiene. Fecal particles that contain the bacteria may get on an infected person’s hands when they use the bathroom and, if they don’t wash their hands properly, can get into food they prepare or touch — which can then infect someone else.

Although the Colorado outbreak occurred in August, the infections were only recently reported because the illness has a long incubation period.

Meaning, you could have typhoid fever for weeks and not even know it.

“That’s not unusual,” William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Health. “The typhoid bacteria can get into the intestine and take some time to multiply and cause the infection. During the incubation period, you are symptom-free.”

Related: Chipotle Shuts Seattle, Portland Stores After E. Coli Outbreak; More Cases Expected

The length of time it takes for a person to experience symptoms depends on how much of the bacteria they were infected with, board-certified infectious disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who has treated people with typhoid fever, tells Yahoo Health.

“If you only ingested a small number, it will take longer for that bacteria to reach a level where it will become symptomatic,” he says. “There are reports of it taking up to 60 days.”

Symptoms include a persistent high fever that may be accompanied by a rash with rose-colored spots. Typhoid fever has another telling symptom: A steady heart rate.

“When most people have a fever, their heart rate goes up,” Adalja explains. “In typhoid cases, the heart rate stays the same.”

While Schaffner says it’s possible to recover from typhoid fever with antibiotics, he points out that some people can continue to secrete the bacteria in their feces long after they’ve recovered from the illness.

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“The bacteria gets into the gall bladder, can survive there for a long period of time, and constantly be excreted in the intestinal tract,” he says.

That’s what happened in the famous case of Mary Mallon, aka “Typhoid Mary,” a cook in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who was isolated twice by public health officials for infecting people who ate food she had handled. Mallon reportedly infected 51 people with typhoid fever and was responsible for three deaths.

Even though typhoid fever is treatable, Adalja stresses that it’s a serious illness. The sooner you’re diagnosed and treated, the better. “If someone has an unremitting fever and they may have been exposed to food that could have been contaminated, they should seek medical attention immediately,” he says.

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