1 in 10 people get sick from foodborne illness

"Of those who lost years to ill-health, disability, or early death, 40 percent were children under 5 years old, even though they constitute only 9 percent of the world population," says  Arie Havelaar. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Every year one of every 10 people worldwide—mostly children and the poor—suffer from some kind of foodborne disease.

The findings are based on eight years of research and data analysis by a World Health Organization task force charged with measuring the effect of foodborne diseases on populations around the globe.

“The groups most adversely affected by the foodborne diseases are children and people in low-income regions of the world,” says Arie Havelaar of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida.

“Of those who lost years to ill-health, disability, or early death, 40 percent were children under 5 years old, even though they constitute only 9 percent of the world population. Foodborne illnesses affect people on the African continent the most, followed by sub-regions of Southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

[Test detects all viruses that infect you and your pet]

“Estimating the burden of foodborne diseases is highly complex due to the many diseases involved,” Havelaar says. “The full extent of chemical and biological contamination of food, and its burden to society, is still unknown.”

The WHO created the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group in 2007 to study global variation in the impact of foodborne disease. After considering the known disease-causing agents that can be transmitted by food, the group identified 31 hazards as the most necessary to include.

The group found that these 31 foodborne hazards caused 600 million foodborne illnesses and 420,000 deaths in 2010.

Results from the study, published in PLOS Collections and in a WHO technical report,  indicate that up to 33 million healthy life years are lost annually due to foodborne diseases—a number on par with the “big three” infectious diseases—HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis—and air pollution, but clearly lower than the burden of dietary risk factors or unimproved water and sanitation.

[Scientists grow norovirus stomach bug in a dish]

Diarrheal disease agents were the most frequent causes of foodborne illness—particularly norovirus and Campylobacter spp. Non-typhoidal Salmonella enterica, also a diarrheal disease agent, is capable of causing blood poisoning in people with weakened immune systems and was a major cause of death among the pathogens chosen for the study.

Other major pathogens causing foodborne disease deaths included SalmonellaTyphi, a subspecies of Salmonella enterica; Taenia solium, a tapeworm that comes from pork products; and the hepatitis A virus.

“We compiled information from a variety of data sources, including national surveillance systems and scientific literature, and used expert opinion and statistical modeling to fill data gaps,” says Brecht Devleesschauwer, an assistant scientist in the animal sciences department.

“In addition to disease incidence and deaths, we also quantified the disease burden in terms of Disability-Adjusted Life Years—the number of healthy years of life lost due to illness and death—to facilitate ranking between causes of disease and across regions.”

Source: University of Florida