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Foodborne Disease Risk During the Holidays

Public Health Community Advisory – Foodborne Disease Risk During the Holidays
KM Monirul Islam, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Epidemiology


Several holidays that many people in the United States will be celebrating are right around the corner. Many people will get together with family and friends, often to share a meal. Unless we’re careful, holiday meals may pose health risks and injuries to those we care about. Dr. Islam, who has been an infectious disease practitioner and currently teaches infectious disease classes in the COPH, shares information about foodborne disease and how to avoid it:

Foodborne disease is one of the most common health hazards we will encounter during the holidays. An estimated 48 million people get sick and approximately 3,000 deaths occur each year in the United States due to consuming contaminated food. Although the global burden of foodborne disease and its impact on development and trade is currently unknown in both industrialized and developing countries, we do know it is more prevalent in developing countries. Certainly everyone is at risk, but some individuals are at greater risk for developing more aggressive symptoms and even death. Infants, young children, pregnant women, older adults, and individuals with weakened immune systems (those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, and kidney disease, and transplant patients) may become ill after ingesting only a few harmful bacteria, whereas others may remain symptom free after ingesting thousands of harmful bacteria.

The most common clinical presentation of foodborne disease takes the form of gastrointestinal symptoms, which can lead to chronic, life-threatening symptoms, and death. Foodborne illness symptoms may occur within minutes to weeks after consuming contaminated food or beverages and often appear as flu-like symptoms, as the ill person may experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever. Because the symptoms are often flu-like, people may not realize that they have foodborne illness. Salmonella and E. coli are the two organisms responsible for major foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States. Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, or shellfish are the foods most often associated with foodborne disease. Other foods that are associated with foodborne disease include improperly canned foods, garlic in oil, and vacuum-packed and tightly wrapped food.

Foodborne disease is a preventable public health issue. With simple food hygiene and careful food handling, we can prevent and minimize the occurrence of foodborne illness. To prevent foodborne disease,
Carefully prepare meats when you barbecue; avoid unpasteurized milk and unpasteurized juices such as fresh apple cider; and when traveling in developing countries, avoid consuming raw fruits and vegetables and unbottled water.

Avoid foods such as meat, gravy, and salads that have been left out for long periods at steam tables, at room temperature, or on a buffet.

Seek treatment for symptoms if the victim (you or a family member) is in an “at risk” group or if symptoms are severe or persistent.

Call the local health department if the suspected food was served at a large gathering place, such as a restaurant or other food service facility, or if the suspected food is a commercial product.

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