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Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition

Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms
and Natural Toxins Handbook

Giardia lamblia
1. Name of the organism:
Giardia lamblia
Giardia lamblia (intestinalis) is a single celled animal, i.e., a protozoa, that moves with the aid of five flagella. In Europe, it is sometimes referred to as Lamblia intestinalis.
2. Disease Name: Giardiasis is the most frequent cause of non-bacterial diarrhea in North America.
3. Nature of the disease: Organisms that appear identical to those that cause human illness have been isolated from domestic animals (dogs and cats) and wild animals (beavers and bears). A related but morphologically distinct organism infects rodents, although rodents may be infected with human isolates in the laboratory. Human giardiasis may involve diarrhea within 1 week of ingestion of the cyst, which is the environmental survival form and infective stage of the organism. Normally illness lasts for 1 to 2 weeks, but there are cases of chronic infections lasting months to years. Chronic cases, both those with defined immune deficiencies and those without, are difficult to treat. The disease mechanism is unknown, with some investigators reporting that the organism produces a toxin while others are unable to confirm its existence. The organism has been demonstrated inside host cells in the duodenum, but most investigators think this is such an infrequent occurrence that it is not responsible for disease symptoms. Mechanical obstruction of the absorptive surface of the intestine has been proposed as a possible pathogenic mechanism, as has a synergistic relationship with some of the intestinal flora. Giardia can be excysted, cultured and encysted in vitro; new isolates have bacterial, fungal, and viral symbionts. Classically the disease was diagnosed by demonstration of the organism in stained fecal smears. Several strains of G. lamblia have been isolated and described through analysis of their proteins and DNA; type of strain, however, is not consistently associated with disease severity. Different individuals show various degrees of symptoms when infected with the same strain, and the symptoms of an individual may vary during the course of the disease.

Infectious Dose - Ingestion of one or more cysts may cause disease, as contrasted to most bacterial illnesses where hundreds to thousands of organisms must be consumed to produce illness.

4. Diagnosis of Human Illness: Giardia lamblia is frequently diagnosed by visualizing the organism, either the trophozoite (active reproducing form) or the cyst (the resting stage that is resistant to adverse environmental conditions) in stained preparations or unstained wet mounts with the aid of a microscope. A commercial fluorescent antibody kit is available to stain the organism. Organisms may be concentrated by sedimentation or flotation; however, these procedures reduce the number of recognizable organisms in the sample. An enzyme linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA) that detects excretory secretory products of the organism is also available. So far, the increased sensitivity of indirect serological detection has not been consistently demonstrated.
5. Associated Foods: Giardiasis is most frequently associated with the consumption of contaminated water. Five outbreaks have been traced to food contamination by infected or infested food handlers, and the possibility of infections from contaminated vegetables that are eaten raw cannot be excluded. Cool moist conditions favor the survival of the organism.
6. Relative Frequency of Disease: Giardiasis is more prevalent in children than in adults, possibly because many individuals seem to have a lasting immunity after infection. This organism is implicated in 25% of the cases of gastrointestinal disease and may be present asymptomatically. The overall incidence of infection in the United States is estimated at 2% of the population. This disease afflicts many homosexual men, both HIV-positive and HIV-negative individuals. This is presumed to be due to sexual transmission. The disease is also common in child day care centers, especially those in which diapering is done.
7. Complications: About 40% of those who are diagnosed with giardiasis demonstrate disaccharide intolerance during detectable infection and up to 6 months after the infection can no longer be detected. Lactose (i.e., milk sugar) intolerance is most frequently observed. Some individuals (less than 4%) remain symptomatic more than 2 weeks; chronic infections lead to a malabsorption syndrome and severe weight loss. Chronic cases of giardiasis in immunodeficient and normal individuals are frequently refractile to drug treatment. Flagyl is normally quite effective in terminating infections. In some immune deficient individuals, giardiasis may contribute to a shortening of the life span.
8. Target Populations: Giardiasis occurs throughout the population, although the prevalence is higher in children than adults. Chronic symptomatic giardiasis is more common in adults than children.
9. Food Analysis: Food is analyzed by thorough surface cleaning of the suspected food and sedimentation of the organisms from the cleaning water. Feeding to specific pathogen-free animals has been used to detect the organism in large outbreaks associated with municipal water systems. The precise sensitivity of these methods has not been determined, so that negative results are questionable. Seven days may be required to detect an experimental infection.
10. Selected outbreaks: Major outbreaks are associated with contaminated water systems that do not use sand filtration or have a defect in the filtration system. The largest reported foodborne outbreak involved 24 of 36 persons who consumed macaroni salad at a picnic.
  For more information on recent outbreaks see the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports from CDC.
11. FDA Regulations or Activity: FDA is actively developing and improving methods of recovering parasitic protozoa and helminth eggs from foods. Current recovery methods are published in the FDA's Bacteriological Analytical Manual.

The CDC/MMWR link will provide a list of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports at CDC relating to this organism or toxin. The date shown is the date the item was posted on the Web, not the date of the MMWR. The summary statement shown are the initial words of the overall document. The specific article of interest may be just one article or item within the overall report.
The NIH/PubMed button at the top of the page will provide a list of research abstracts contained in the National Library of Medicine's MEDLINE database for this organism or toxin.
January 1992 with periodic updates

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Hypertext last updated by mow/ear/xxz 1998-SEP-16