Helicobacter pylori: epidemiology and routes of transmission

Epidemiol Rev. 2000;22(2):283-97. doi: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.epirev.a018040.


H. pylori is a common bacterium, and approximately 50 percent of the world's population has been estimated to be infected (198). Humans are the principal reservoir. The prevalence of H. pylori infection varies widely by geographic area, age, race, ethnicity, and SES. Rates appear to be higher in developing than in developed countries, with most of the infections occurring during childhood, and they seem to be decreasing with improvements in hygiene practices. H. pylori causes chronic gastritis and has been associated with several serious diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, including duodenal ulcer and gastric cancer. Since its "discovery" in 1982 by Warren and Marshall (1), H. pylori has been the topic of extensive research. A number of studies have used questionnaire components to investigate factors possibly related to the etiology of H. pylori infection. The majority of recent studies have not found tobacco use or alcohol consumption to be risk factors for H. pylori infection. Adequate nutritional status, especially frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables and of vitamin C, appears to protect against infection with H. pylori. In contrast, food prepared under less than ideal conditions or exposed to contaminated water or soil may increase the risk. Overall, inadequate sanitation practices, low social class, and crowded or high-density living conditions seem to be related to a higher prevalence of H. pylori infection. This finding suggests that poor hygiene and crowded conditions may facilitate transmission of infection among family members and is consistent with data on intrafamilial and institutional clustering of H. pylori infection. Understanding the route of H. pylori transmission is important if public health measures to prevent its spread are to be implemented. Iatrogenic transmission of H. pylori following endoscopy is the only proven mode. For the general population, the most likely mode of transmission is from person to person, by either the oral-oral route (through vomitus or possibly saliva) or perhaps the fecal-oral route. The person-to-person mode of transmission is supported by the higher incidence of infection among institutionalized children and adults and the clustering of H. pylori infection within families. Also lending support to this concept is the detection of H. pylori DNA in vomitus, saliva, dental plaque, gastric juice, and feces. Waterborne transmission, probably due to fecal contamination, may be an important source of infection, especially in parts of the world in which untreated water is common. Recent studies in the United States have linked clinical H. pylori infection with consumption of H. pylori-contaminated well water. This area of research is worthy of further investigation. Although H. pylori has been isolated in domestic cats, additional research has suggested that H. pylori is probably uncommon in domestic cats and thus is probably not a major concern for cat owners. Several studies have suggested sheep as a possible source of H. pylori transmission, a hypothesis that deserves additional investigation. The most recent reservoir suggested for H. pylori transmission is the housefly. However, evidence is lacking that H. pylori can be transmitted to humans from flies that have been in contact with H. pylori-infected feces. Nevertheless, the hypothesis is appealing since flies are known to carry many other infectious diseases. Knowledge of the epidemiology and mode of transmission of H. pylori is important to prevent its spread and may be useful in identifying high-risk populations, especially in areas that have high rates of gastric lymphoma, gastric cancer, and gastric ulcer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Developed Countries
  • Helicobacter Infections / diagnosis
  • Helicobacter Infections / epidemiology*
  • Helicobacter Infections / transmission*
  • Helicobacter pylori / isolation & purification*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors