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Long-Term Health Effects Of Foodborne Illnesses

November 13, 2009

Foodborne illnesses can cause lasting health consequences, particularly for the young, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, according to a new report released Thursday by the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention in Pennsylvania.

The researchers studied the five most common foodborne illnesses, and found they can cause life-long complications such as paralysis, kidney failure, seizures, mental retardation, hearing and visual impairments.

“While the severity of acute foodborne disease varies greatly, depending on the pathogen and the vulnerability of the person infected, the impact of foodborne illness on children, as well as for the elderly and immunosuppressed (e.g., pregnant women, people undergoing chemotherapy, organ-transplant recipients, HIV/AIDS patients), is more likely to be serious and/or long-lasting,” wrote the authors of the report.

“It’s not just a tummy ache,” said the center’s Tanya Roberts during a news briefing.

Some 76 million Americans are sickened each year from foodborne illness, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   Of these, roughly half are children under the age of 15.

In recent years, outbreaks have been linked to spinach, peanuts, peppers, ground beef and other common household foods.

Although foodborne illnesses typically result in just a few days of diarrhea and vomiting, in 2 to 3 percent of cases foodborne disease can result in serious long-term health consequences, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The current report reviews much of what is currently known about the health outcomes for five foodborne pathogens:  campylobacter infection, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Toxoplasma gondii.

Campylobacter infection, which afflicts millions of Americans each year and hospitalizes more than ten thousand, typically causes diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting.  But it is also associated with Guillain-Barr© syndrome (GBS), the most common cause of neuromuscular paralysis in the United States.  People suffering from GBS can become permanently disabled and paralyzed. Campylobacter also can trigger arthritis, heart infections, and blood infections, the report said.

E. coli O157:H7 infection can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the top cause of acute kidney failure in U.S. children, said the authors of the report.  Young people, in particular, are vulnerable to complications.

“E. coli O157:H7 infection poses great risk for children, especially those in the younger age groups. Children have the highest incidence rate and are at the greatest risk for developing serious complications,” wrote the center in a summary of the report.

Listeria monocytogenes, which infects thousands of Americans each year, nearly all of them from contaminated food, has been linked with infections of the brain and spinal cord, resulting in severe neurological dysfunctions or death.

Most reported cases occur in young children, and about 20 percent of those who become infected die as a result.

“Listeriosis survivors often are left with serious neurological dysfunctions, including seizures, paralysis, and impaired ability to see, hear, swallow, or speak. Severe cases often result in partial to total impairment and can require life-long residential care,” the center said.

Salmonella bacteria can trigger painful reactive arthritis (ReA) in some people.  Antibiotic-resistant strains have emerged and their incidence appears to be on the rise, particularly in children. Nearly 50 percent of all reported Salmonella cases occur in children.

Nearly 80% of infants and fetuses whose mothers were infected with Toxoplasma gondii can develop cognitive or visual disabilities that show up by the age of 17.  These impairments can include mental retardation, moderate visual impairment, crossed-eyes, and blindness.

“The long-term health burden of foodborne disease is not well understood and there are few guidelines for long-term medical care. Additional research is needed to improve our knowledge about these diseases so that we can better understand the impact that foodborne illness is having on different populations, particularly young children,” said the center.

“It’s not just these five”¦there are over 200 pathogens that have different kinds of consequences,” said Roberts.

Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Program at the Pew Health Group, told Reuters she hopes that Congress will take action on the report by enacting legislation to improve the nation’s food safety.

“We started 2009 with a major foodborne illness outbreak linked to peanut butter and peanut butter products. It ultimately resulted in nine deaths and sickened more than 700 people in 46 states,” she said.

“Families should not have to wait another year for safer food.”

“To lower the health, social, and economic burdens of foodborne illness, associated with both its acute impact and its long-term consequences, the United States must support applied foodborne illness research, and begin focusing on the long-term health outcomes associated with foodborne disease,” the center concluded.

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