Almost 600 million people, or 10% of the world’s population, fall ill from eating contaminated food each year. Of these, 420,000 die, including 125,000 children under 5 years, according to a report prepared by the World Health Organization and published in PLOS One.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases are the first ever global estimates of the impact of foodborne diseases.
The report points out that while children under 5 years represent only 9% of the global population, they suffer almost 30% of all deaths from contaminated food, especially in low-income areas.
In terms of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs), 33 million years are lost to ill-health, disability or early death each year, with 40% affecting the under-5s.
While the burden of foodborne diseases is a public health concern globally, Africa and South-East Asia are most affected.
The report is the result of 10 years’ work, with input from over 100 experts worldwide, and examines foodborne diseases caused by 31 agents, including bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals.
More than 50% of the diseases are diarrheal, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230,000 to die every year. Diarrhea affects 220 million children each year, killing 96,000. Diarrhea is often caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, eggs, fresh produce and dairy products contaminated by norovirus, Campylobacter, nontyphoidal Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli.
Some diseases, such as those caused by non-typhoidal Salmonella, are a public health concern worldwide, regardless of economic status. Others, such as typhoid fever, foodborne cholera and those caused by pathogenic E. coli, tend to affect low-income countries, while Campylobacter is prevalent in high-income countries.
Symptoms of foodborne diseases can be short-term, such as the nausea, vomiting and diarrhea typical of “food poisoning,” or long-term, such as cancer, kidney or liver failure, brain and neural disorders.
The diseases may be more serious in children, pregnant women, seniors or those with a weakened immune system. Children who survive some of the more serious diseases may suffer from delayed physical and mental development, impacting their quality of life permanently.
Foodborne diseases are most prevalent in the WHO Africa region, with more than 91 million people falling ill and 137,000 fatalities each year.
The US has one of the lowest rates of foodborne disease globally, although the WHO Americas region has the second lowest burden overall.
Across the continent, contaminated food causes illness in some 77 million people annually, including 31 million children, and causes 9,000 deaths, of which more than 2,000 are children.
In the Americas region, diarrheal diseases pose the greatest risk, with Norovirus, Campylobacter, E. coli and non-typhoidal Salmonella causing 95% of cases.
Toxoplasmosis and the pork tapeworm are very important food safety concerns in the Central and South America. Toxoplasmosis is spread through undercooked or raw meat and fresh produce and can result in impaired vision and neurological conditions.
In low- and middle-income countries, the elevated risk is related to food being prepared with unsafe water, poor hygiene, inadequate conditions in food production and storage, lower levels of literacy and education and insufficient food safety legislation or implementation of such legislation.
Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO says:
“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. 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 authors stress that food safety is a shared responsibility. Foodborne diseases pose a global threat that governments, the food industry and individuals must do more to prevent. They call for more education and training among food producers, suppliers, handlers and the general public.
They add that the WHO is working with national governments to help set and implement food safety strategies and policies to improve food safety in the global marketplace.
Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported that the number of food poisoning cases in Florida may be underestimated.