More research needed into foodborne diseases: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Foodborne diseases appear to be on the rise in both rich and poor countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

More research is needed to determine how much sickness and death stems from contaminated food, such as the tainted Chinese milk that caused kidney problems in more than 50,000 children and killed four, and the U.S. salmonella outbreak that made more than 1,400 people ill, WHO director of food safety Jorgen Schlundt said.

An estimated 30 percent of new infectious diseases originate in bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals and toxins introduced along food production chains, he told an experts’ meeting.

“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,” Schlundt said.

About 2.2 million children die each year from diarrheal illnesses including cholera caused by dirty water, food, and poor sanitation, according to the United Nations agency.

Food products needed to be monitored at every stage of their handling, Schlundt said.

“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 said.

In many countries, regulatory authorities fail to work together, he said.

“In China there are 16 different authorities involved in some way in dealing with the melamine crisis,” he said.

Julie Ingelfinger, a Harvard Medical School professor and pediatric nephrologist, said many people had overlooked the seriousness of complications caused by contaminated food.

For instance, E.coli poisoning can cause hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a cause of kidney failure in children, she said.

“Research into the long-term effects of foodborne disease is increasingly important because it is unquantified and goes on for decades,” she said.

David Heymann, WHO assistant director-general for health, security and the environment, told the meeting that rich and poor countries were both vulnerable to foodborne diseases.

“Foodborne diseases occur on every continent and in every country really. We never know where these events will happen,” he said.

The recent salmonella outbreak in the United States — its worst in a decade — was an example of the changing picture of foodborne diseases, according to the WHO.  Continued…

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