Yersinia enterocolitica Food Poisoning – Yersiniosis

What is Yersinia enterocolitica?

  • Yersinia enterocolitica is a pathogenic bacterium that falls under the Enterobacteriaceae family. It is known to cause various diseases, including acute gastroenteritis and the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death.
  • When it comes to foodborne illnesses and enteric pathogens, Y. enterocolitica ranks as the third most common culprit, following Campylobacter and Salmonella species infections. In addition to Y. enterocolitica, Y. pseudotuberculosis is another enteropathogenic species, while Y. pestis, transmitted by flea vectors, is responsible for causing the bubonic plague.
  • These bacteria are primarily found in animals, particularly swine, and can be present in a wide range of foods and environments. Yersiniosis, the infection caused by Y. enterocolitica, mostly occurs as sporadic cases. Among the vulnerable groups, young children under the age of five, as well as infants, are highly susceptible to this infection.
  • Although foodborne outbreaks of yersiniosis are rare in developed countries such as Japan and The Netherlands, as well as in developing countries like Bangladesh and Iraq, which lie in the temperate zone, Y. enterocolitica is present worldwide. It has the ability to survive even at refrigeration temperatures, leading to complications associated with yersiniosis infections in humans across the globe.
  • To effectively address yersiniosis, it is crucial to determine its prevalence by identifying potential sources, transmission routes, pathogenesis, methods of detection, and preventive measures. This knowledge is essential for implementing appropriate control strategies and ensuring public health and safety.

Characteristics of Yersinia enterocolitica

Yersinia enterocolitica possesses several characteristic features:

  1. Gram-negative: Y. enterocolitica is classified as a Gram-negative bacterium based on its cell wall structure.
  2. Non-spore forming bacillus: It does not form spores, which are resistant structures that certain bacteria can produce under unfavorable conditions.
  3. Psychrotrophic enterobacteria: Y. enterocolitica is considered a psychrotrophic bacterium, meaning it can grow and thrive at low temperatures, including refrigeration temperatures.
  4. Oxidase negative: Y. enterocolitica does not produce the enzyme oxidase, which is commonly used in microbiological tests for bacterial identification.
  5. Catalase positive: Y. enterocolitica produces the enzyme catalase, which can break down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. This characteristic is often used in bacterial identification.
  6. Facultative anaerobic rods or cocobacilli: Y. enterocolitica can adapt to both aerobic (oxygen-rich) and anaerobic (oxygen-depleted) environments. It appears as rod-shaped bacteria, although in some cases, it can exhibit a cocobacillus morphology (resembling a short, oval-shaped rod).
  7. Non-capsulated: Unlike certain other Yersinia species, Y. enterocolitica lacks a capsule, which is a protective layer outside the bacterial cell.
  8. Motile (except Y. pestis): Y. enterocolitica is generally motile, meaning it has the ability to move using flagella. However, it is worth noting that Y. pestis, another species within the Yersinia genus, is non-motile.
  9. Grows at 5% NaCl concentration: Y. enterocolitica can grow in a medium containing a 5% concentration of sodium chloride (NaCl).
  10. pH range from 4 to 10: Y. enterocolitica can tolerate a wide range of pH levels, with growth possible in environments ranging from pH 4 to pH 10.

These characteristics collectively contribute to the identification and classification of Y. enterocolitica within the Yersinia genus and aid in understanding its behavior and survival in various environments.

Contamination Source of Yersinia enterocolitica Food Poisoning

  • The primary source of contamination for Yersinia enterocolitica food poisoning is reported to be pigs. Pigs serve as the main reservoir for this bacterium, and various parts of their body, such as the oral cavity (including tonsils), intestines, feces, and lymph nodes, can harbor Y. enterocolitica. Cross-contamination can occur between pig products and other food items during processing and handling.
  • In addition to pigs, other potential sources of Y. enterocolitica contamination include food, water, sewage, and various animals. Animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and rodents can also carry and transmit the bacterium, contributing to its spread. Ruminants (such as cattle and sheep), poultry, vegetables, milk and milk products, ready-to-eat foods, and even chitterlings (pork intestines) are considered possible sources of yersiniosis infection.
  • It is important to note that contaminated food products, especially those of animal origin, can pose a significant risk for transmitting Y. enterocolitica to humans. Proper hygiene practices, thorough cooking of food, and ensuring the safety of water sources are crucial in preventing Yersinia enterocolitica food poisoning.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Yersinia enterocolitica food poisoning is characterized by a range of signs and symptoms, which typically manifest within 24 to 30 hours after ingestion of contaminated food. The predominant symptoms are related to the gastrointestinal system, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, fever, and pain in the lower right side of the abdomen, which can resemble symptoms of appendicitis.
  • In addition to gastrointestinal symptoms, Y. enterocolitica infection can lead to various other manifestations in adults. These include joint pain, known as reactive arthritis, as well as a skin rash called erythema nodosum. Enterocolitis, which refers to inflammation of the intestines, mesenteric lymphadenitis (inflammation of lymph nodes in the abdominal region), and terminal ileitis (inflammation of the end portion of the small intestine) are also possible outcomes of infection.
  • The severity of Y. enterocolitica infection can vary depending on the age group and overall health of the individual. In infants, the infection can persist for 3 to 28 days, whereas in adults, it typically lasts for 1 to 2 weeks.
  • It is important to note that Y. enterocolitica infection can be particularly dangerous for individuals with compromised immune systems. In severe cases, the infection can lead to life-threatening conditions such as septicemia (bloodstream infection), pneumonia, meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord), and endocarditis (inflammation of the heart’s inner lining and valves), which can result in death.
  • Prompt medical attention is crucial for managing severe cases of Yersinia enterocolitica infection, especially in individuals who are immunocompromised or exhibit severe symptoms.

Yersinia enterocolitica Food Poisoning Pathogenic Mechanism

Yersinia enterocolitica food poisoning employs several pathogenic mechanisms to cause infection. The following information describes the key aspects of its pathogenicity:

  1. Oral transmission and infective dose: Y. enterocolitica is typically transmitted through oral ingestion of contaminated food or water. A relatively high number of bacteria, ranging from 10^7 to 10^9 cells, is required to initiate an infection.
  2. Route of colonization: After ingestion, the bacteria survive the acidic environment of the stomach and reach the small intestine. They establish colonization primarily in the terminal ileum (end portion of the small intestine) and the proximal colon (the beginning part of the large intestine).
  3. Invasion of mucosal layer: Y. enterocolitica has the ability to penetrate the mucosal layer of the intestine and infect the underlying tissue. The strains of pathogenic Y. enterocolitica exhibit resistance to nonspecific immune responses, allowing them to establish infection.
  4. Virulence plasmid (pYV): Y. enterocolitica contains a 70-kilobase (kb) virulence plasmid known as pYV. This plasmid plays a crucial role in the replication of the bacteria within lymphoid tissue.
  5. Temperature and calcium regulation: The pYV genes are influenced by the optimal temperature of 37°C (body temperature) and low calcium concentrations, which are conditions encountered within the host.
  6. Attachment and invasion: The pathogen utilizes the Attachment invasion locus (Ail) protein to attach to and invade host cells. Ail also helps protect the bacteria against host immune responses.
  7. YadA adhesin: YadA, also known as Yersinia adhesion A, promotes the replication of Y. enterocolitica within Peyer’s patches, which are areas of lymphoid tissue in the intestinal wall. This leads to the formation of abscesses and inflammation in joints.
  8. Lymphatic spread: Y. enterocolitica spreads from Peyer’s patches to other organs and tissues, including the liver, spleen, lungs, and lymph nodes, resulting in characteristic lymphadenitis (inflammation of lymph nodes).
  9. Yst enterotoxin: Y. enterocolitica produces a heat-stable enterotoxin called Yst. It is composed of three components: Yst-A, Yst-B, and Yst-C. This enterotoxin promotes fluid secretion in the intestines. It stimulates the membrane-bound guanylate cyclase, which leads to the activation of intracellular cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) and cGMP-dependent protein kinase. This activation inhibits sodium (Na+) absorption and stimulates chloride (Cl-) secretion, resulting in increased fluid secretion.

These pathogenic mechanisms of Yersinia enterocolitica contribute to the infection process and the development of symptoms associated with Y. enterocolitica food poisoning.

Epidemiology of Yersinia enterocolitica Food Poisoning

The epidemiology of Yersinia enterocolitica food poisoning can be summarized as follows:

  • Increase in outbreaks: There has been a rise in Y. enterocolitica outbreaks in recent years. These outbreaks have been associated with the consumption of high-risk foods such as raw meat, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Raw and undercooked pork meat: Numerous studies have identified a strong link between yersiniosis and the consumption of raw or undercooked pork meat. This suggests that pork is a significant source of Y. enterocolitica contamination.
  • European Union cases: In the European Union, there have been over 7,000 reported cases of yersiniosis, with approximately 98% of these cases caused by Y. enterocolitica. However, the fatality rate is relatively low, at around 0.02%.
  • High-risk groups: Children under 5 years of age are considered to be at a higher risk of yersiniosis. In countries like Lithuania and Finland, the reported incidence rates are particularly high, with 10 to 11 cases per 100,000 population.
  • Common serotype: The most prevalent serotype of Y. enterocolitica associated with human infection is bioserotype 4/O:3. This serotype is frequently implicated in cases of yersiniosis.
  • Case in Malaysia: In Malaysia, a case of Yersinia infection was reported in a 34-year-old female who consumed beef and chicken burger meats. This highlights the potential risk associated with various food sources.
  • Limited understanding: Despite the increased awareness and reporting, the actual incidence of yersiniosis remains limited, and the exact causes of the infection are still not fully understood. This is partly due to the high genetic similarity among Y. enterocolitica strains and inconsistencies in surveillance systems.

Overall, the epidemiology of Y. enterocolitica food poisoning highlights the importance of proper food handling and cooking practices, particularly with regard to raw or undercooked pork meat. Continued efforts to improve surveillance and understanding of the infection are essential for effective prevention and control strategies.

Yersinia enterocolitica Detection methods

Various detection methods are employed for the identification and diagnosis of Yersinia enterocolitica. The following information describes the key methods used:

  • Culture methods: Culture methods involve the use of selective media such as MacConkey agar, Hektoen-Enteric (HE) agar, and Xylose-lysine-deoxycholate (XLD) agar to promote the growth of Y. enterocolitica. These media help increase the bacterial count, facilitating identification.
  • Modified cefsulodin-irgasan-novobiocin (CIN) agar: CIN agar is a selective medium specifically designed for differentiating Y. enterocolitica from other bacterial species. It has been found to be highly effective in isolating and identifying Y. enterocolitica.
  • Bioassays: Bioassays involving the use of mice and rabbits are employed to determine the activity of Yersinia enterotoxin (Yst). These tests assess the presence and potency of the toxin produced by the bacteria.
  • Serological tests: Traditional serological tests, such as agglutination-based serodiagnosis, have been used for the detection of Y. enterocolitica. However, the effectiveness of these tests has been limited due to cross-reactions with antibodies against other pathogens.
  • Immunofluorescence assay and ELISA: Indirect immunofluorescence assay (IFA) and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) methods are used to diagnose patients with yersiniosis. These techniques detect specific antibodies or antigens related to Y. enterocolitica in patient samples.
  • Molecular detection methods: Molecular techniques have become increasingly popular for the detection of Y. enterocolitica. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and reverse transcription PCR (RT-PCR) are commonly employed to amplify and detect specific DNA or RNA sequences of the bacteria. Other molecular methods include multilocus enzyme electrophoresis (MLEE), pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP), randomly amplified polymorphic DNA (RADP), and DNA ribotyping. These techniques offer high specificity and sensitivity for the identification and characterization of Y. enterocolitica strains.

These various detection methods play a crucial role in the identification, diagnosis, and characterization of Y. enterocolitica, enabling effective surveillance, outbreak investigations, and targeted treatment strategies.

Yersiniosis Treatments 

The treatment of yersiniosis, caused by Yersinia enterocolitica, typically involves supportive measures and, in severe cases, the use of antibiotics. The following information outlines the key aspects of yersiniosis treatment:

  • Proper nutrition and oral rehydration: The primary treatment approach for yersiniosis involves ensuring proper nutrition and oral rehydration. This helps to replenish fluids and electrolytes lost due to diarrhea and vomiting. Maintaining adequate hydration is crucial, especially in mild to moderate cases.
  • Self-limiting nature: Yersiniosis is generally a self-limiting disease, meaning it resolves on its own without specific medical intervention. In such cases, antibiotic therapy is not typically required.
  • Antibiotics for severe cases: In severe cases or when complications arise, antibiotics may be beneficial. Aminoglycosides, such as gentamicin, and the combination antibiotic trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (TMP-SMZ) are commonly used to treat severe yersiniosis. These antibiotics help combat the infection and reduce the duration and severity of symptoms.
  • Broad-spectrum cephalosporins: Broad-spectrum cephalosporin antibiotics, such as ceftriaxone, may be effective in treating extraintestinal Yersinia infections. These infections occur when the bacteria spread to organs outside the gastrointestinal tract, leading to conditions such as septicemia, pneumonia, or meningitis.

It is important to note that the decision to use antibiotics for yersiniosis should be made based on the severity of the infection, the presence of complications, and the overall health of the patient. Antibiotic treatment should be prescribed by a healthcare professional and should consider factors such as antimicrobial resistance patterns and the individual’s specific circumstances.

Overall, while most cases of yersiniosis do not require antibiotic therapy, prompt medical attention and appropriate supportive care are crucial for managing severe cases and reducing the risk of complications.

Prevention and Control of Yersiniosis

Prevention and control measures play a vital role in reducing the risk of Yersiniosis, caused by Yersinia enterocolitica. The following information highlights key aspects of prevention and control:

  • Proper food handling: Since Y. enterocolitica is a psychrotrophic bacterium, refrigeration temperatures alone are not sufficient to control its growth. It is essential to handle food properly, ensuring that raw milk and undercooked meat, particularly pork, are avoided. Thorough cooking of meat products is important to destroy any potential bacteria.
  • Sanitation and hygiene: Maintaining good sanitation practices during the slaughtering and handling of raw meat products, especially those derived from swine, is crucial. This includes maintaining cleanliness in processing facilities, proper hand hygiene, and preventing cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods.
  • Heat treatment methods: Yersinia species, including Y. enterocolitica, are heat-sensitive and can be easily destroyed by various heat treatment methods. Pasteurization, which involves heating milk or other liquid foods to specific temperatures, effectively kills Yersinia bacteria. Additionally, using heat preservation methods during food processing, such as cooking, can help eliminate Yersinia contamination.
  • UV radiation: Ultraviolet (UV) radiation has also been found to be effective in reducing Yersinia contamination. UV irradiation can be used as a disinfection method for surfaces, equipment, and water sources to reduce the risk of Yersiniosis.
  • Good agricultural practices: Implementing good agricultural practices, including proper animal hygiene, biosecurity measures, and appropriate waste management, can help reduce Yersinia contamination in the agricultural environment and minimize the risk of transmission to humans.
  • Education and awareness: Promoting education and awareness about Yersiniosis and its prevention among food handlers, consumers, and healthcare professionals is essential. This includes providing information about proper food handling, cooking practices, and the importance of personal hygiene.

Implementing these prevention and control measures can significantly reduce the incidence of Yersiniosis and ensure the safety of food and water sources. It is important to combine these measures with regular monitoring, surveillance, and adherence to regulatory guidelines to effectively control the spread of Yersinia enterocolitica and protect public health.


What is yersiniosis?

Yersiniosis is a foodborne illness caused by the bacterium Yersinia enterocolitica, which primarily affects the gastrointestinal system.

How is Yersinia enterocolitica transmitted?

Y. enterocolitica is transmitted through the consumption of contaminated food or water, particularly raw or undercooked pork, as well as through contact with infected animals.

What are the common symptoms of yersiniosis?

The symptoms of yersiniosis include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, fever, and abdominal pain, which can mimic appendicitis. Joint pain, skin rash, and inflammation of the intestines or lymph nodes can also occur.

Who is at a higher risk of contracting yersiniosis?

Young children under the age of five, infants, and individuals with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to yersiniosis.

How long does yersiniosis typically last?

Yersiniosis is usually a self-limiting illness, with symptoms lasting from a few days to a few weeks. In severe cases, symptoms may persist longer.

Can yersiniosis be treated with antibiotics?

In most cases, antibiotic treatment is not necessary as yersiniosis is self-limiting. However, in severe cases or for individuals at high risk, antibiotics such as aminoglycosides or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole may be prescribed.

How can yersiniosis be prevented?

Prevention measures include proper food handling and cooking, avoiding consumption of raw or undercooked pork, maintaining good sanitation during food processing, and practicing personal hygiene, such as regular handwashing.

Can yersiniosis be fatal?

While yersiniosis is typically not life-threatening, in rare cases, severe complications can arise, especially in immunocompromised individuals, leading to septicemia, pneumonia, meningitis, or endocarditis, which can be fatal.

How is yersiniosis diagnosed?

Diagnosis of yersiniosis is typically based on clinical symptoms, medical history, and laboratory tests such as stool culture, PCR, or serological tests to detect specific antibodies or antigens.

Are there any long-term complications associated with yersiniosis?

In some cases, yersiniosis can lead to complications such as reactive arthritis, which causes joint inflammation, or erythema nodosum, a skin rash. These complications may persist even after the infection has resolved.

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