By: Heather Williams

You start to feel it.  The sickening nausea.  The inconvenient diarrhea.  The uncomfortable stomach pain.  You get a phone call that your friend or family member who ate the same thing you did yesterday or the day before is starting to feeling it too.  You think “we must have a stomach bug.”  If you are a healthy person you wait it out, treat the uncomfortable symptoms for a few days, and after it passes, simply go on with your life.  No real harm.  Everything worked out.  “What can you do?  Right?  It’s just a stomach bug.”

Sadly a “stomach bug” is generally a misnomer.  Most of the time the illness you are experiencing is from foodborne pathogens.  It can originate from the food itself containing pathogens.  Or gasp!  The more likely route transmitted via the traditional fecal-oral route from someone who is already infected with the illness by poor hygiene at food handling.   That’s not something we really like to think about, is it?  You are not alone.  An estimated one in six Americans each year become infected with foodborne illness.  Chances are you or someone you know may be affected by this sometime soon.  Consider the following advice if you feel you are infected with a foodborne illness.  Do not take it lightly.

If you believe what you experienced was a food related infection, you have a responsibility to report it.  There are lots of reasons why you should report foodborne illness, but the primary reason is so that you can help prevent others from becoming sick.  Believe it or not, your cases matters.  Sadly, only a fraction of the number of foodborne illness cases are reported, leaving outbreak investigations in the dark and with gaps in information.  Generally, only those with illness so severe that require medical attention get reported.  This could mean serious health complications or even death in some unfortunate cases, depending on the health state of the person and they type of pathogen involved.  If the very first cases are reported, investigators may have a bigger lead to identify the source before so many people become sick.  Identification could lead to recall or prophylaxis for those affected, reducing the number of people falling victim to the event.  Health officials can be put on notice to test for a particular foodborne illness when patients present a specific set of symptoms.  This is important because many of the symptoms of foodborne illness are the generic nausea, diarrhea, and stomach pain.  These symptoms could go to a slew of illnesses that are both foodborne and completely unrelated to those pathogens.  Many times the tests for these pathogens are very specialized, and would only be ordered if the health care professional suspected it to be the cause.

What is An Outbreak?

A foodborne outbreak is defined as a foodborne illness event in which two or more people get the same illness from the same food or drink source.  The two or more people may or may not be from the same party.  It could very well be you and the person three tables over from you.  The outbreak could affect a small number of people and be isolated to a single food handling error or larger event involving many people resulting from a larger scale contamination source.  Report foodborne illness to your local health department.  This allows investigators to identify and track a foodborne outbreak so that they can help control them and help prevent others from becoming infected.

Foodborne Illness Goes Unreported

The leading cause of foodborne illness is norovirus and Salmonella.  Others of note include E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, and the list goes on and on totaling more than 250 different foodborne diseases caused by foodborne illness according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The CDC estimates that foodborne illness sickens 48 million in the U.S. each year, hospitalizes 120,000, and results in about 3,000 deaths.  These illnesses are preventable and could be reduced with better reporting and additional analysis by Health Officials.

Why is Surveillance Important?

Local health officials input illness cases into a national database via a web-based program called the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS).  This database gives the CDC information about current outbreaks and can help connect the dots on a larger scale for bigger outbreak events.  Surveillance is particularly useful in identifying food preparation and consumption activities in which outbreaks occur and helps health authorities implement prevention and control measures to mitigate and prevent future outbreaks.  This database also helps to indicate any new or emerging pathogens, allowing both the CDC and local health officials trace trends in foodborne illness.

Foods to Look Out For

Raw meats and animal products are at a higher risk of being contaminated, often originating from the butcher and processing activities where meat may come in contact with fecal matter and intestinal materials.  Animal products include raw meat and poultry, eggs, unpasteurized milk and milk products, and raw shellfish.   The CDC also explains that filter feeding fish are particularly susceptible to contamination in that they strain microbes (sometimes harmful ones) often for months before being caught and made into food, making them a higher risk of being contaminated if pathogens are present in the water.

The CDC also explains that fruits and vegetables typically consumed raw are also at risk for pathogen contamination.  Many times contamination occurs from water used to wash produce after harvest that might be contaminated with pathogens.  Improperly composted manure applied to crops have extreme pathogen contamination as well as water obtained from an area of manure runoff.  If produce are exposed to those pathogens and not thoroughly cleaned, foodborne illness can be transmitted to an unknowing consumer.

Unpasteurized fruit juices are also a risk for foodborne illness.  Any bacteria on or in the fruit can contribute to contamination.  Additionally, the act of juicing the fruit can introduce external contamination.  The pasteurization process heats the juice to a temperature that will kill the harmful bacteria, making it safer to consume.

Report Foodborne Illness

While prevention is always better than dealing with foodborne illness, we must all do our part to report when we think we may be sick from food.  This has nothing to do with trying to get a restaurant or a particular brand in trouble.   Chances are, they would want to know because no one wants to be responsible for making others sick.  Reporting your illness could save others from becoming sick or help those who have become sick seek faster treatment.