WHO Calls For More Research On Foodborne Illnesses
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported Thursday that the number of foodborne diseases seem to be on the rise in both wealthy and poor nations.
Jorgen Schlundt, director of food safety at the WHO, said additional research is needed to assess how much illness and death is caused by contaminated food, such as tainted milk in China that sickened thousands and a U.S. outbreak of salmonella that sickened 1,400 people.
During a meeting of experts, Schlundt said 30 percent of new infectious diseases come from bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals and toxins introduced along food production chains.
"There are some indications that the foodborne disease burden is increasing. But there is not very good data, it is difficult to say exactly what is happening," he said.
According to WHO figures, roughly 2.2 million children die each year from diarrheal illnesses, such as cholera, caused by contaminated water, food, and poor sanitation.
Schlundt advises that food products be monitored at every stage of their handling.
"If you want to deal with food safety you have to go from the ‘farm to the fork’. The notion that you can deal with it at the end of the food chain is clearly wrong," he told Reuters, adding that regulatory authorities often fail to work together effectively in many countries.
"In China there are 16 different authorities involved in some way in dealing with the melamine crisis," he said.
Harvard Medical School professor Julie Ingelfinger said many people had failed to notice the gravity of complications caused by contaminated food. For instance, she said, E.coli poisoning can cause hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a cause of kidney failure in children.
"Research into the long-term effects of foodborne disease is increasingly important because it is unquantified and goes on for decades," she added.
David Heymann, WHO assistant director-general for health, security and the environment, said that both wealthy and poor nations were vulnerable to foodborne illnesses.
"Foodborne diseases occur on every continent and in every country really. We never know where these events will happen," he told experts at the meeting.
The WHO pointed to the recent salmonella outbreak in the United States an example of the evolution of foodborne diseases. Although such outbreaks are typically linked to eggs, poultry and dairy products, they have recently been caused by fresh produce, the U.N agency said. In the case of the U.S. salmonella outbreak, officials initially suspected tomatoes were the cause, but later traced the bacteria to peppers from Mexico.
Nancy Donley, who leads the U.S. non-profit group Safe Tables Our Priority, said food safety must be taken more seriously as a public health concern.
"It’s crucial to keep foodborne disease prevention as a top priority in the world," she told Reuters.
"Behind every statistic is a face, a name, a life," said Donley, who lost her 6-year-old son, Alex, in 1993 from an e.coli infection from contaminated meat.
Image Caption: Escherichia coli cells use long, thin structures called flagella to propel themselves. These flagella form bundles that rotate counter-clockwise, creating a torque that causes the bacterium to rotate clockwise. (NSF)
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