Food-borne diseases like E. co//and salmonella have become more prevalent in the past few decades as food moves aroun the globe s with most countries which are signatories of organisations like Unicef and the World Health Organisation, SA's signed agreements to decrease the occurrence of these illnesses as they're recognised as a threat to global health generally. However, as Dr Karen Keddy, Chief Pathologist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) states, there may be strong intent to investigate and manage these illnesses at a local level, but there's neither sufficient funding nor enough scientists to conduct accurate research.
"The biggest problem is in a country approaching 50 million people, we simply don't have the resources. Secondly, within this population there's a mindset that food-borne diseases are seldom fatal. In most cases, you self-diagnose it as a tummy bug and rarely go to the doctor; therefore it doesn't get reported, so we don't really have accurate figures to track the incidents or the distribution of pathogens nationally," says Keddy. She adds that the estimated cost of food-borne diseases in the USA * for health-related issues is a staggering $152 billion (about Rl trillion), excluding industry losses.
The University of Stellenbosch is currently undertaking research on food safety in SA. Food biologist Prof Trevor Britz says while there are currently no accurate reporting mechanisms in place, figures maybe far higher than one realises. As an example, he did a small project in a local township over one month and found 75 000 cases of diarrhoea due to food- and water-borne diseases, when only three had been reported.
These numbers alone suggest the need for further research. While most food-borne diseases aren't fatal, an immuno-suppressed individual may still be at risk. For example, in a healthy person, salmonella (the most significant bacterium and the easiest to identify in a lab) is rarely fatal. "How- ever babies with immature immune systems, the elderly and persons with HIV/Aids are certainly at risk beyond diarrhoea and vomiting if they contract a food-borne disease," says Keddy. At consumer level, we need to be vigilant in the kitchen. "Certainly, at farm level, you need to know the chickens are salmonella-free and that there's no contamination during the abattoir process. But once it's in your kitchen, practise infection control procedures; wash hands, don't chop salads on the chicken board, etc. And if you're in any doubt as to what exactly that 'tummy bug' is, consult your doctor," advises Keddy