Outbreaks of salmonella from eating contaminated eggs have spread across the country and now represent a major public health problem, the federal Centers for Disease Control reports.

Previously, salmonella outbreaks had been confined primarily to the New England and Middle Atlantic states. But outbreaks are now occurring in other parts of the country, Dr. Ban Mishu, a CDC epidemiologist, said."Salmonella enteritidis has increased dramatically from the early 1980s," Mishu said. "It is a major public health problem that's growing and one that we're trying to control."

In its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC said it had received reports of 49 outbreaks of salmonella caused by SE from January through October of this year. Of that number, 22, or 45 percent, occurred outside the New England and Middle Atlantic states.

SE is one of many types of salmonella and is found primarily in eggs. Identification of SE bacteria as a cause of salmonella is becoming increasingly common and is indicative of the major role contaminated eggs are playing in the spread of the disease, Mishu said.

"During 1985-89, state and territorial health departments reported 244 SE outbreaks, which accounted for 8,607 cases of illness, 1,094 hospitalizations and 44 deaths. Of the 109 outbreaks in which a food vehicle was identified, 89 (82 percent) were associated with shell eggs, " the CDC said.

A salmonella infection causes abdominal pain, fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and dehydration.

Most cases of SE once were believed caused by eggs that became contaminated after being cracked. But in the 1980s, health officials discovered that entire flocks of chickens and turkeys were infected by the SE bacterium and that the organism was being transmitted from the chicken to the egg and hence to consumers.

The CDC said federal health officials have implemented two major control measures to deal with the salmonella problem caused by contaminated eggs. The Agriculture Department began investigating flocks of hens last February, and interstate movement of eggs from contaminated flocks was restricted. Eggs from such flocks either are diverted to pasteurization plants or the flock is destroyed.