The World Health Organization (WHO) and I don’t see eye to eye all the time. I criticized their handling of SARS for example, where the world was being panicked with daily bulletins from the WHO and tourism almost ground to a halt. The death toll was somewhere around 9,000.
However, the latest bulleting I received from the WHO, in its capacity for providing leadership on global health matters, informed that 420,000 people died from food-borne diseases.
In the WHO bulletin it was stated that almost one third (30 percent) of all deaths from foodborne diseases are in children under the age of five years, despite the fact that they make up only 9 percent of the global population. This is among the findings of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseasesthe most comprehensive report to date on the impact of contaminated food on health and wellbeing.
The report, which estimates the burden of foodborne diseases caused by 31 agents bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals states that each year as many as 600 million, or almost 1 in 10 people in the world, fall ill after consuming contaminated food. Of these, 420,000 people die, including 125,000 children under the age of five years.
“Until now, estimates of foodborne diseases were vague and imprecise. This concealed the true human costs of contaminated food. This report sets the record straight,” says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO. “Knowing which foodborne pathogens are causing the biggest problems in which parts of the world can generate targeted action by the public, governments, and the food industry.”
The WHO states African and South-East Asia Regions have the highest incidence and highest death rates, including among children under the age of five years.
“Based on what we know now, it is apparent that the global burden of foodborne diseases is considerable, affecting people all over the world particularly children under five years of age and people in low-income areas,” says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses.
Diarrheal diseases cause 550 million people to fall ill and 230,000 deaths every year. Children are at particular risk of foodborne diarrheal diseases, with 220 million falling ill and 96,000 dying every year. Diarrhea is often caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, eggs, fresh produce and dairy products contaminated by norovirus, Campylobacter, non-typhoidal Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli.
Other major contributors to the global burden of foodborne diseases are typhoid fever, hepatitis A, Taenia solium (tapeworm), and aflatoxin (produced by mold on grain that is stored inappropriately).
Certain diseases, such as those caused by non-typhoidal Salmonella, are a public health concern across all regions of the world, but other diseases, such as typhoid fever, foodborne cholera, and those caused by pathogenic E. coli, are much more common in low-income countries, while Campylobacter is an important pathogen in high-income countries.
The risk of foodborne diseases is most severe in low- and middle-income countries, linked to preparing food with unsafe water; poor hygiene and inadequate conditions in food production and storage; lower levels of literacy and education; and insufficient food safety legislation or implementation of such legislation.
Foodborne diseases can cause short-term symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea (commonly referred to as “food poisoning”), but can also cause longer-term illnesses, such as cancer, kidney or liver failure, brain and neural disorders. These diseases are more serious in children, pregnant women, and those who are older or have a weakened immune system. Children who survive some of the more serious foodborne diseases may suffer from delayed physical and mental development, impacting their quality of life permanently.
Food safety is a shared responsibility, says WHO. The report’s findings reinforce the need for governments, the food industry and individuals to do more to make food safe and prevent foodborne diseases. There remains a significant need for education and training on the prevention of foodborne diseases among food producers, suppliers, handlers and the general public. WHO is working closely with national governments to help implement food safety strategies and policies that will have a positive impact on the safety of food in the global marketplace.