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Food-borne infections endanger long-term health, especially for kids

November 12, 2009 |  3:12 pm

Fair warning: Put down that salad or medium-rare cheeseburger you're eating, pitch the brie cheese you enjoy with a glass of wine, and clear the chicken and leafy greens from the plate in front of Junior. Because you're not going to want eat or serve any of them after you read what a pair of reports released Thursday by the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, have to say:

Long after the painful stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea of a brush with tainted food is over, many of us suffer long-term health effects, mostly unrecognized, that are the result of food-borne pathogens. These lingering effects can be very bad -- as bad as premature death, paralysis, kidney failure and a lifetime of seizures or mental disability. Many researchers believe these persistent health consequences cause more disability, lost productivity, doctor-office visits and hospitalizations than the acute illnesses that follow exposure to a food-borne toxin.

And while high-profile cases of food-borne illness have been caught, publicized and probably brought to an early end in recent years (think spinach, alfalfa sprouts, ground beef, peanut butter and tomatoes), the incidence of poisoning by tainted food is probably vastly understated.

As if all that isn't bad enough, food-borne pathogens cut their widest swath of destruction among the youngest of us. Children under 4 are disproportionately the victims of poisoning by the food-borne pathogens CampylobacterE coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. And roughly half of all reported cases of food-borne illness affect kids younger than 15. Because younger kids are smaller, it takes a smaller dose of harmful bacteria to sicken them, and their less-experienced immune systems don't combat food-borne pathogens as effectively as do those of adults. They're more vulnerable, too, because their stomachs don't produce the volume of acids that adult digestive systems do.

In addition to urging public health officials, physicians and researchers to do a better job of understanding and stopping outbreaks of food poisoning, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a campaign called Make our Food Safe for the Holidays, urges the following steps for consumers:

  • Cook meat thoroughly.
  • Clean work surfaces, cutting boards and bowls thoroughly after using them on uncooked meats or eggs to prevent contamination of other foods.
  • Wash produce before consuming it.
  • When buying milk and juice, make sure they're pasteurized, and make sure that products made from milk are made with pasteurized milk.
  • Report any food-borne illness to a local health department.

The Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which have shared responsibility for preventing, detecting, tracking and responding to food-borne illness, are exploring ways to improve their performance in tracking the sources of outbreaks. Meanwhile, here's a list of the chief culprits, the foods in which they're most commonly found and some of the possible long-term consequences of infection, all from the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention report:

Salmonella. The leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States, salmonella is harbored by foods with animal origins, including beef, poultry, milk and eggs. It causes 16,000 illnesses and 556 deaths per year. It can cause reactive arthritis -- painful and swollen joints mainly in the lower limbs -- from which patients generally recover in two to six months. Eye irritation and painful urination can also be long-term effects.

Campylobacter: Food-borne sources are raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk and contaminated water. It causes an estimated 2 million acute human illnesses (the vast majority in children under 4) and 124 deaths yearly. Long-term effects can include Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an acquired and sometimes permanent paralysis, reactive arthritis (like Guillain-Barre, an autoimmune reaction) and chronic arthritis.

E. Coli O157:H7: Disproportionately affecting children under 19, E. Coli can taint ground beef and other meats, green leafy vegetables, unpasteurized (or raw) milk and cheeses made from such milk. About 15% of children infected with E. coli O157:H7 develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure, chronic kidney problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome, narrowed gastro-intestinal passages and neurological problems -- including seizures -- that can take as long four years to resolve.

Listeria monocytogenes: An estimated 2,500 in the U.S. are infected with Listeria each year, and roughly 500 of them die. Listeria monocytogenes taints vegetables grown in contaminated soil or fertilizer, contaminated meat or poultry products. Cold cuts, hot dogs, smoked seafood, raw milk and soft cheeses made from such milk are common sources. In pregnant women -- roughly one-third of those victims --  listeriosis can cause miscarriage, premature death or stillbirth. Surviving fetuses may have mental retardation, hearing loss or brain damage. Adults infected with listeriosis can suffer neurological effects, including seizures and impaired consciousness. About a third experience cardiorespiratory failure.

--Melissa Healy

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