WHO: One in 10 hit by foodborne illness each year

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Almost one third (30%) of all deaths from foodborne diseases are in children under the age of five years, said WHO
Almost one third (30%) of all deaths from foodborne diseases are in children under the age of five years, said WHO

Related tags Foodborne illness Salmonella

Each year as many as 600 million, or almost one in 10 people in the world, fall ill after consuming contaminated food, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Of these, 420 000 people die, including 125,000 children under five years, the agency said in its first ever estimates of the global burden of foodborne disease​.

It estimates the burden of foodborne diseases caused by 31 agents—bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals.

Food safety was the theme of World Health Day this year​.

Difference between high and low income countries

Certain diseases, such as those caused by non-typhoidal Salmonella,​ are of concern in high- and low-income countries.

Others, such as typhoid fever, foodborne cholera, and those caused by pathogenic E. coli, are much more common to low-income countries, while Campylobacter is an important pathogen in high-income countries.

WHO African and South-East Asia Regions have the highest incidence and highest death rates, including among children under the age of five years.

The report will be discussed at a symposium organised by WHO and the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), 15-16 December in Amsterdam. FQN will be reporting live from the event.

Risk of foodborne diseases is most severe in low- and middle-income countries, linked to preparing food with unsafe water; poor hygiene and inadequate conditions in food production and storage; lower levels of literacy and education; and insufficient food safety legislation or implementation of such legislation.

Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses said the estimates are the result of a decade of work, including input from more than 100 experts worldwide.

They are conservative, and more needs to be done to improve the availability of data on the burden of foodborne diseases. But based on what we know now, it is apparent that the global burden of foodborne diseases is considerable, affecting people all over the world—particularly children under five years of age and people in low-income areas.”

Diarrhoeal diseases are responsible for more than half of the global burden of foodborne diseases, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230,000 deaths every year.

Children are at particular risk, with 220 million falling ill and 96,000 dying every year.

Diarrhoea is often caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, eggs, fresh produce and dairy products contaminated by norovirus, Campylobacter, non-typhoidal Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli.
Other major contributors are typhoid fever, hepatitis A, Taenia solium​ (a tapeworm), and aflatoxin (produced by mould on grain that is stored inappropriately).

Regional findings

The WHO African Region was estimated to have the highest burden of foodborne diseases per population. More than 91 million people fall ill and 137,000 die each year.

Non-typhoidal Salmonella, ​which can be caused by contaminated eggs and poultry, causes the most deaths, killing 32,000 a year. 10% of the overall foodborne disease burden is caused by Taenia solium​ (the pork tapeworm).

Chemical hazards, specifically cyanide and aflatoxin, cause one quarter of deaths from foodborne diseases and Konzo, a particular form of paralysis caused by cyanide in cassava, is unique to the African Region, resulting in death in one in five people affected.

Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, said 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 WHO South-East Asia Region has the second highest burden of foodborne diseases per population with more than 150 million cases and 175,000 deaths a year.

Norovirus, non-typhoidal Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli cause the majority of foodborne disease deaths. Additionally, the pork tapeworm has a major impact on health.

The Eastern Mediterranean Region has the third highest estimated burden of foodborne diseases per population.

An estimated 37,000 people die each year from unsafe food, caused primarily by diarrhoeal diseases, typohoid fever, hepatitis A, and brucellosis

Half of the global cases of Brucellosis are from this region, with more than 195,000 people infected every year.

Every year, 125 million people in the WHO Western Pacific Region become ill from contaminated food, causing more than 50,000 deaths.

Aflatoxin is the leading cause of foodborne disease deaths with more than 10,000 people estimated to develop liver cancer due it every year, with the disease proving fatal in nine out of 10 people.

The Western Pacific Region also has the highest death rate from foodborne parasites, particularly the Chinese liver fluke (Clonorchis sinensis​), Echinococcus multilocularis​ and the pork tapeworm.

The WHO Region of the Americas is estimated to have the second lowest burden of foodborne diseases globally with 77 million people falling ill every year with an estimated 9000 deaths annually.

The WHO European Region has the lowest estimated burden globally, more than 23 million people ill from unsafe food every year, resulting in 5000 deaths.

Findings reinforce the need for governments, industry and individuals to do more to make food safe and prevent foodborne diseases, said the agency.

There remains a significant need for education and training on the prevention of foodborne diseases among food producers, suppliers, handlers and the general public, it added. 

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