At least 600 million people, or 1 in 10 worldwide, fall ill from contaminated food each year and 420,000 die, many of them young children, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said. Giving its first global estimates of preventable food-borne diseases, a WHO report called on governments and industry to improve inspections and control of the food chain from the fields and farmyard to the factory and the plate.
Food-borne diseases – caused by bacteria such as salmonella, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals – mostly cause temporary symptoms such as nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. But they can also cause longer-term illnesses including cancer, kidney or liver failure, brain disorders, epilepsy and arthritis, the United Nations agency said.
“The data we are publishing is only a very conservative estimate. We are sure that the real figure is bigger,” Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety, told a news briefing.
Part of the problem can come from global trading in food, Dr Miyagishima said: “If there is one country where food safety is weak and this country exports food to other countries, it becomes the weakest link in the whole food production system.” Faulty handling at the other end of the food chain, for example by street vendors, is also a problem in many countries. “It is much better to invest in training and education of street vendors than to try to penalise them,” said University of Florida expert Dr Arie Hendrik Havelaar. “That would be an important strategy to improve the food safety situation.”
The highest number of cases and deaths occur among the poor in developing countries, but the United States and Europe also have deadly outbreaks.
“Our results show that the biggest burden is in Africa and in South-east Asia, where the death rates are highest, including those of children under five years of age,” said Dr Havelaar, head of the 150 scientists who carried out the research.
Children are especially vulnerable to diarrhoeal diseases, often caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, or eggs, fresh produce and dairy products that are contaminated.
In Africa, most deaths are caused by salmonella, the pork tapeworm, cyanide in cassava and aflatoxin, a chemical produced by moulds that grow on grains or corn that have been stored incorrectly.
Governments must invest more in training food producers, suppliers and the public, the WHO reported.
Foodborne diseases around the world
Figures suggest Africa has the highest burden of foodborne diseases, relative to its population. More than 91 million people are estimated to fall ill and 137,000 die each year.
Although having the second highest relative burden of foodborne diseases, South-east Asia suffers the most, with more than 150 million cases and 175,000 deaths a year.
Some 60 million children under the age of five fall ill and 50,000 die from foodborne diseases in Southeast Asia every year.
The WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region – the Middle East and north Africa – is third-highest.
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