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Why the world needs to do more to prevent global illness, disabilities and deaths from foodborne diseases

Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the WHO's Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses

3 December 2015

Every day at lunchtime, dozens of children pour into a newly built canteen next to their school in Palmiste Tampe, Haiti. They and their parents can feel safe about the food they are eating since it comes from a kitchen set up by a non-profit organization that provides safely prepared food and education about it to schools in remote areas.

Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the WHO's Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses
Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the WHO's Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses

Developed by the Spanish nongovernmental organization CESAL, the project was set up to provide continuous training and support for cooks in accordance with food safety guidelines developed by WHO alongside Haitian health authorities.

"In today’s world defined by international trade and complex global supply chains, foodborne diseases are a major threat to health and wellbeing."

Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the WHO's Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses

These children are the lucky ones. Sadly, every year around the world, some 125 000 children under the age of 5 die from eating contaminated food , as detailed in WHO’s most comprehensive report to date on the global burden of foodborne diseases. It makes for grim reading: almost 1 in 10 people around the world fall ill each year from eating contaminated food, and around 420 000 die.

The report, "Estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases", is a hard-hitting look at the devastating impact of eating food contaminated by 31 agents—bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals. This is the first report to shed light on the size of this problem, which we now know to be a leading cause of preventable illness and deaths worldwide, and for which data has been sorely lacking.

There can be few of us who are unfamiliar with the unpleasant but usually short-lived impact of foodborne disease, typically referred to as ‘food poisoning’. Diarrhoeal diseases are the most common illnesses resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, causing an estimated 550 million people to fall ill every year. However, what many people don’t know is that it can be more than a nuisance. Foodborne diarrhoeal diseases kill some 230 000 people each year. Young children are at particular risk of foodborne diarrhoeal diseases, with 220 million falling ill and 96 000 dying every year.

Healthy life years lost

There is much less awareness of the grave, longer-term consequences of foodborne diseases, such as cancer, kidney or liver failure and brain and neural disorders. Young children who survive some of the more serious foodborne diseases may suffer consequences, such as developmental delays, for the rest of their lives.

The WHO report also highlights the disease burden in terms of Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) or, in simpler terms, the number of healthy life years lost due to illness, disability and death. The global toll of foodborne diseases is staggering: 33 million healthy life years lost, again with the heaviest toll taken on children under 5 years who bear an estimated 40% of this burden, despite making up just 9% of the global population.

Unsurprisingly, the risk of foodborne diseases is most severe in low- and middle-income countries—the WHO African and South-East Asian Regions have the highest burden of foodborne diseases and highest death rates. However, let there be no doubt: unsafe food puts each one of us at risk, regardless of where we are in the world.

Foodborne diseases are preventable

So what is to be done? These illnesses and deaths are preventable. WHO has long worked to improve access to adequate, safe, nutritious food for everyone, particularly those most vulnerable to foodborne diseases. But it has not always been a high priority for countries, especially those dealing with numerous serious health challenges. At a practical level, WHO is working closely with governments to improve surveillance and reporting of foodborne diseases, to obtain a clearer picture of unique local challenges. This work, along with the global report, will support policymakers to put the right strategies in place to prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks. WHO has also developed an online tool to help policymakers understand the most prevalent foodborne diseases in their region and develop targeted actions to tackle them.

Food contamination has far reaching effects beyond the obvious and visible direct public health consequences—it undermines food exports, tourism, the livelihoods of food handlers and economic development, both in developed and developing countries. Now, more than ever, it’s critical that food safety is integrated into school education and that those who prepare food—at home or in small food operations—are educated and supported to better protect the health of their communities.

Let me be clear: everyone has a role to play in preventing foodborne diseases. Fortunately, unlike other global challenges, there are some basic principles that each of us can take on board that will help reduce our own risk and the overall burden: wash hands regularly; keep raw and cooked meats separate; cook food thoroughly; keep food at safe temperatures; and use safe water and raw materials.

It is my fervent hope that this new information will foster increased political attention and spur collective action to improve food safety, help protect those who are most vulnerable, and ultimately deliver reductions in these preventable illnesses, disabilities and deaths.