Background In hospitalised patients with diarrhoea a positive campylobacter stool Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test with negative culture results as well as Enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (EPEC) positive stool PCRs, challenges the clinician and may lead the unexperienced clinician astray. The aim of the study was to elucidate the clinical significance of positive Campylobacter and/or EPEC test results in hospitalised patients with diarrhoea. Methods We conducted a retrospective case-case study. Case groups with 1) EPEC only and 2) EPEC in combination with any other pathogen in the PCR multiplex array, 3) PCR positive/culture negative Campylobacter, and 4) PCR positive/culture positive Campylobacter were compared. Medical records were reviewed and cases classified according to pre-specified clinical criteria as infectious gastroenteritis or non-infectious causes for diarrhoea. We analyzed the association between laboratory findings (the 4 subgroups) and the pre-specified clinical classification. We further sequenced culture negative campylobacter samples and tested EPEC for bundle forming pilus A (bfpA) gene, distinguishing typical from atypical EPEC. Results A total of 291 patients were included, 169 were PCR positive for Campylobacter and 122 for EPEC. For both pathogens, co-infections were more common in culture negative/PCR positive samples than in culture positive samples. Clinical characteristics differed significantly in and between groups. Campylobacter culture positive patients had very high prevalence of characteristics of acute infectious gastroenteritis, whereas patients with PCR positive test results only often had an alternative explanation for their diarrhoea. Culture positives were almost exclusively C. jejuni/coli, whereas in culture negatives, constituting a third of the total PCR positives, C. concisus was the most frequent species. The vast majority of EPEC only positives had documented non-infectious factors that could explain diarrhoea. The EPEC co-infected group mimicked the culture positive campylobacter group, with most patients fulfilling the infectious gastroenteritis criteria. Conclusions In hospitalised patients, positive PCR results for campylobacter and EPEC should be interpreted in a clinical context after evaluation of non-infectious diarrhoea associated conditions, and cannot be used as a stand-alone diagnostic tool.
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