Foodborne diseases are a major public health problem. They result from eating foods that contain substances which are either infectious or toxic in nature. In the previous session you have learned about microbial and chemical food contamination. In this session you will learn more about the foodborne diseases that are important for public health, their type and classification, their characteristics and their common symptoms. You will also learn how outbreaks of foodborne diseases should be investigated.
When you have studied this session, you should be able to:
9.1 Define and use correctly all of the key words printed in bold. (SAQ 9.1)
9.2 Describe the main types and classification of foodborne diseases. (SAQs 9.1 and 9.2)
9.3 Describe and give examples of the most common bacterial, viral and parasitic foodborne diseases. (SAQ 9.3)
9.4 Describe how you can conduct investigations of foodborne disease outbreaks. (SAQ 9.4)
Since as far back as the time when the documentation of human history began, consumption of contaminated food and foodborne diseases have been a major global health problem. Contamination can be with microorganisms, chemicals and physical objects in food (as you learned in Study Session 8), which can lead to a variety of foodborne diseases or ill effects such as poisoning.
Foodborne diseases are still a major public health concern all over the world today. They are responsible for many cases of adult illnesses and some deaths, but more importantly, contaminated food is a source of the acute diarrhoeal diseases that claim the lives of enormous numbers of children every day. Worldwide, about 2 million children under the age of five years die from diarrhoeal diseases every year.
In developing countries like Ethiopia, the problem reaches great proportions for many reasons. Most basic among these are poverty and a lack of public health awareness. The problem of foodborne disease is more serious among rural communities where there tends to be a lower level of awareness about the causes and prevention of foodborne infection.
Well-documented information is lacking regarding the extent of foodborne diseases in Ethiopia because many cases are not properly diagnosed or not reported, and many people who are sick with foodborne diseases do not visit health facilities. This makes it difficult to collect statistical data or even make an estimation of the level of the problem – except that it is certainly huge.
In the two previous study sessions you have learned about microorganisms and food contamination. The single method of transmission of foodborne diseases to human beings is through ingestion (eating) of food in the following categories:
Why is it unwise to eat food that has been kept for a long time after it was prepared?
It may have been kept in conditions that created a favourable environment for the growth and multiplication of microorganisms in the food, especially if it was exposed to flies, cockroaches, etc., or kept at a warm temperature.
Foodborne diseases are usually classified on the basis of whatever causes them. Accordingly they are divided into two broad categories: food poisoning and food infections. Each of these categories is further subdivided on the basis of different types of causative agent (see Figure 9.1). We will discuss each of them in turn.
Food poisoning can be from chemical or biological sources. If we eat food that contains harmful chemicals, or biological toxins (poisons) from plants, animals or microorganisms, that food can make us sick. Some common sources of food poisoning are caused by contaminants already in the food when the raw materials are harvested, for example:
Chemical food poisoning can also occur if foodstuffs have been in contact with toxic chemicals during food production, processing, storage and handling.
The symptoms of food poisoning can range from mild headache to severe flu-like symptoms. The most common signs and symptoms are nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, fever, chills and vomiting. A person with food poisoning may have any combination of these symptoms depending on the cause or the agent involved. The illness may begin from 1 to 72 hours after eating the food.
The diagnosis, treatment and prevention of all these diseases are covered in more detail in the Module on Communicable Diseases.
Food infection occurs as a result of ingestion of pathogenic microorganisms with food. The ingested microorganisms multiply in the gut and can cause diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid fever and cholera; intestinal parasites can cause diseases such as amoebiasis and taeniasis (tapeworm disease); and zoonotic foodborne diseases (i.e. those that are transmitted to humans from other animals), e.g. anthrax and bovine tuberculosis.
There are many different kinds of foodborne diseases and they may require different treatments, depending on the symptoms they cause. Illnesses that cause acute watery diarrhoea or persistent vomiting lead to dehydration if the person loses more body fluids and salts (electrolytes) than they are able to replace. It is therefore important to rehydrate the person, ideally with oral rehydration salts (ORS), or if this is not available, a simple mixture of clean water with some sugar and salt is advised.
Electrolytes are salts in the body that conduct electricity; they are found in all cells, blood and other body fluids, and are essential for normal functioning.
Tables 9.1 and 9.2 in Appendix 9.1 (at the end of this study session) summarise the types of organism which cause food infections and food poisoning (respectively). The tables also show the types of food items that are the main risk factors for the associated foodborne diseases. You are not expected to memorise the details of these tables; use them as references that you can consult for information when you need it.
Look at Table 9.1. What do anthrax and tapeworm infection have in common?
Raw meat consumption from sick and dying animals (like ox, cow, sheep, goat, camel) is responsible for transmitting anthrax, and raw beef and pork are the source of tapeworm infection.
Which foodborne infections in Table 9.1 are commonly associated with consumption of contaminated milk and dairy products?
Brucellosis, typhoid fever, non-typhoid salmonellosis, bovine tuberculosis, E.coli infection and listeriosis.
In Tables 9.1 and 9.2 we summarised the most widespread foodborne diseases and the different causative agents and types of foods involved. Now you will learn about a few of the most common foodborne diseases in Ethiopia, together with some advice that you can use to inform people in your community on how to avoid these diseases.
Many common diarrhoeal diseases are caused by bacterial infections transmitted by ingestion of contaminated food and water. Prevention of these diseases should be focused on good personal hygiene by all food handlers, including the consumer of the food. Some bacterial diseases such as anthrax, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are particularly related to foods of animal origin; these are described in detail in Study Session 12.
Several different viruses may be transmitted by contaminated food via the faeco-oral route. Foodborne viral infections usually have an incubation period of between one and three days. They cause illnesses which are self-limited in people who are otherwise healthy (i.e. they recover naturally) but occasionally severe illness and even deaths may also occur.
In the group of viral infections causing viral gastroenteritis (VGE), rotavirus is a common cause of vomiting and watery diarrhoea. Dehydration is the likely consequence unless appropriate rehydration therapy is used. Caliciviruses such as norovirus (also known as Norwalk virus) also cause diarrhoea.
Viral hepatitis caused by Hepatitis A and E viruses is almost exclusively transmitted by the faeco-oral route. Hepatitis A is distinguished from other viral causes by its prolonged (two to six weeks) incubation period and its ability to spread beyond the stomach and intestines into the liver. It often induces jaundice, or yellowing of the skin, and can occasionally lead to chronic liver dysfunction.
Tapeworms are one of the most common causes of foodborne parasitic diseases in Ethiopia.
You will learn more about beef tapeworm in Study Session 12.
Taenia saginata (the beef tapeworm) is the most common cause of tapeworm disease in Ethiopia. Immature forms of the tapeworm develop in the muscles of animals that have eaten tapeworm eggs while grazing on infected grass. People are infected when they eat raw or undercooked beef (Figure 9.2). The adult tapeworms develop in the person’s small intestine and segments of the worms containing eggs are deposited in the environment when the person defecates. This is how the cycle is continued.
Hydatid disease, caused by dog tapeworm, is transmitted when a person ingests the eggs of Echinococcus granulosus in food contaminated with dog faeces. This disease may cause symptoms in women that resemble ‘false pregnancy’, because its effect is to enlarge the liver and cause the abdomen to swell so the woman may appear to be pregnant. The infection may also lodge in the lung or the brain. The prevention of disease caused by dog tapeworm is through personal hygiene when handling food and thorough washing of raw foods, especially if they have come into contact with soil.
Fish tapeworm (Diphyllobothrium latum) infects people through the consumption of raw fish and is more common in the lake areas of Ethiopia where the diet is highly dependent on fish. The symptoms of infection with the fish tapeworm are similar to those of other tapeworm infections, i.e. abdominal discomfort or pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea, and loss of appetite and weight loss. People should be advised only to eat fish that has been properly cooked.
In this section, we describe two of the most common sources of food poisoning in Ethiopia, and the advice you can give to people in your community on how to avoid being poisoned by these bacterial sources of contamination.
Staphylococcal food poisoning is caused by one of the many species of staphylococcal bacteria and is the most common and major type of food poisoning you are likely to encounter. This type of food poisoning can result from the preparation of food more than half a day in advance of needs, storage at ambient temperature, inadequate cooling or inadequate reheating. It begins with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, stomach cramping and diarrhoea. These can persist for days and lead to dehydration, loss of electrolytes and even death if not treated promptly. Control measures are promoting and monitoring the personal hygiene of food handlers, safe and hygienic conditions in food preparation areas, and keeping cooked or processed foods covered and in cool conditions until consumed.
Foodborne botulism is a form of food poisoning caused by Clostridium botulinum. It occurs in poorly canned foods, including home-canned foods, and honey. It is advisable not to eat food from deformed or bulging cans and not to give honey to young children.
There are two main types of chemical poisoning. One is caused by chemical products and the other by heavy metals.
Common sources of chemical contamination of foods are pesticides including insecticides, herbicides and rodenticides, and detergents, or their containers. When these chemical products find their way into food they can cause poisoning. There are also many cases of intentional chemical poisoning in Ethiopia when people drink these chemicals to commit suicide. Many people die from chemical poisoning if they do not go to healthcare facilities in time.
Metals cause poisoning when foods are stored in faulty or damaged containers made of materials like tin, lead, copper and zinc. These metals can dissolve in acid foods such as fruit juices and produce fast-acting poisons in the body when ingested. Possible sources of contamination include residues migrating into foods from soldered cans, leaching from utensils, contaminated water, glazed pottery, painted glassware and paints.
The management approach to patients with foodborne diseases depends on the identification of the specific causative agent, whether microbial, chemical or other. There are many different kinds of foodborne diseases and they may require different treatments, depending on the symptoms they cause. Many episodes of acute diarrhoeal disease are self-limiting and require only fluid replacement and supportive care. If an antibiotic is required, the choice should be based on the clinical symptoms and signs.
You should refer all patients with acute diarrhoea that are not responding to rehydration and supportive care.
Patients with severe diarrhoea and vomiting may need oral rehydration salts (ORS) and antibiotics. In the most severe cases, for example in a cholera epidemic, intravenous fluids containing glucose and normal saline may have to be given to support rehydration. If the disease is due to food poisoning, there may be a need to give an antitoxin, or other antidote to neutralise the effect of the toxin, if such medicines exist or can be accessed in time. These more specialised interventions can only be done at a health facility. However, the limitations of health facilities in rural areas may restrict the choice of the specific management approach.
As a Health Extension Practitioner, you should educate the members of your community on how to recognise the symptoms of foodborne diseases, and to seek advice and supportive treatment from you. If there is a large number of cases, you should document them and report them as soon as possible to the District Health Office.
The surveillance and management of disease outbreaks is covered in detail in the Communicable Diseases Module.
Foodborne disease outbreaks, i.e. several similar cases occurring at the same time, are not uncommon. To identify the source and prevent reoccurrence of such outbreaks, systematic clinical and laboratory investigations have to be made. The investigation and control of foodborne disease outbreaks are multidisciplinary tasks requiring skills in the areas of clinical medicine, epidemiology, laboratory medicine, food microbiology and chemistry, food safety and food control, and risk communication and management. Many outbreaks of foodborne disease are poorly investigated, if at all, because these skills are unavailable, or because a field investigator is expected to master them all single-handedly without having been fully trained.
If you have an unusually large number of people with symptoms of foodborne diseases in your community, you should follow the general steps and procedures summarised in Box 9.1.
In Study Session 9, you have learned that:
Now that you have completed this study session, you can assess how well you have achieved its Learning Outcomes by answering these questions. Write your answers in your Study Diary and discuss them with your Tutor at the next Study Support Meeting. You can check your answers with the Notes on the Self-Assessment Questions at the end of this Module.
Explain the difference between foodborne diseases caused by infections and those caused by poisoning.
Diseases caused by food infection result from ingestion of food that has been contaminated by microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, parasitic organisms and fungi.
Diseases caused by food poisoning result from ingestion of food that has been contaminated by a toxin or poison which may be of chemical or biological origin.
Outline three factors that contribute to the widespread occurrence of foodborne disease in Ethiopia.
There are many possible factors you may have identified including:
Which of the following foodborne diseases is different from the others and why?
Typhoid fever, shigellosis and cholera are all bacterial foodborne infections. Amoebiasis is a parasitic infection.
Imagine you received a report that several people had become ill after a recent wedding ceremony. You were told that at least 20 people had developed acute diarrhoea within 24 hours. What would be your first step in investigating this outbreak?
The first step would be to gather information about the outbreak. You would need to find out exactly how many people were affected, what their ages were and whether they were male or female. You would need to confirm that they had all been together at the wedding ceremony and ask what they had eaten and when they each became ill.
You may also need to consider further steps such as taking samples from the patients or samples of food.
|Disease category||Disease||Causative agent(s)||Foods commonly involved|
|Bacterial||Typhoid fever||Salmonella typhi||Raw vegetables and fruits, salads, pastries, unpasteurised milk and milk products, meat|
|Paratyphoid fever||Salmonella paratyphi|
|Shigellosis||Shigella species||All foods handled by unhygienic workers, potato or egg salad, lettuce, raw vegetables|
|Cholera||Vibrio cholera||Fruits and vegetables washed with contaminated water|
|Non-typhoid salmonellosis||Salmonella species, e.g. Salmonella typhimurium||Eggs, poultry, undercooked meals, unpasteurised dairy products, sea foods, sausages|
|Brucellosis||Brucella species, mostly Brucella melitensis||Milk and dairy products from infected animals|
|Anthrax||Bacillus anthracis||Contaminated raw and undercooked meat from sick and dying oxen, cows, sheep, goats, camels, etc|
|Bovine tuberculosis||Mycobacterium bovis||Unpasteurised milk, dairy products or meat from tuberculosis-infected cows|
|E.coli infection||Escherichia coli||Beef, dairy products, fresh products, raw produce (potatoes, lettuce, sprouts, fallen apples), salads|
|Listeriosis||Listeria monocytogenes||Milk, cheese, ice cream, poultry, red meat|
Viral gastroenteritis (VGE)
|Rotavirus, caliciviruses including norovirus, astrovirus||Any food contaminated with the virus|
|Viral hepatitis||Hepatitis A and E viruses||Raw shellfish from polluted water, sandwiches, salad and desserts|
|Poliomyelitis||Polio virus||Any food contaminated with the virus|
|Rift valley fever||Rift valley fever virus||Any food contaminated with blood or aerosols from infected domestic animals or their aborted fetuses|
|Parasitic||Taeniasis (tapeworm infection)||Taenia species||Raw beef, raw pork|
|Amoebiasis||Entamoeba histolytica||Any food soiled with faeces|
|Trichinosis||Trichinella spiralis||Insufficiently cooked pork and pork products|
|Ascariasis||Ascaris lumbricoides||Foods contaminated with soil, especially foods that are eaten raw, such as salads, vegetables|
|Giardiasis||Giardia lamblia||Any contaminated food item|
|Toxoplasmosis||Toxoplasma gondii||Raw or undercooked meat and any food contaminated with cat faeces|
|Cryptosporidiosis||Cryptosporidium parvum||Any contaminated food item|
|Parasitic||Hydatid disease||Echinococcus granulosus||Any food contaminated with dog faeces|
|Diphyllobothriasis||Diphyllobothrium latum||Raw or uncooked fish|
|Trichuriasis||Trichuris trichuria||Any food contaminated with soil|
|Fungal||Fungal infections||Aspergillus Penicillium Yeasts||Cereal, grains, flour, bread, cornmeal, popcorn, peanut butter, apples and apple products, mouldy supermarket foods, cheese, dried meats|
|Disease category||Diseases||Toxin type and causative agent||Foods commonly involved|
|Natural toxins in foods||Neurolathyrism||Beta-oxalyl amino-alanine||Lathyrus sativus (guaya)|
|Mushroom poisoning||Phalloidine and alkaloids found in some poisonous mushrooms||Poisonous mushrooms such as species of Amanita phalloides and Amanita muscaria|
|Bacterial toxins||Staphylococcal food poisoning||Entero-toxins from Staphylococcus aureus||Milk and milk products, sliced meat, poultry, legumes|
|Perfringens food poisoning||Strain of Clostridium welchii/ C.perfringens||Inadequately heated or reheated meat poultry and legumes|
|Botulism food poisoning||Toxin of Clostridium botulinum||Home-canned foods, low acid vegetables, corn and peas|
|Escherichia coli food poisoning||Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli O157:H7||Ground beef, dairy products and raw beef|
|Bacillus cereus food poisoning.||Enterotoxins of Bacillus cereus||Cereals, milk and dairy products vegetables, meats, cooked rice|
|Fungal toxins||Ergotism||A toxin (ergot) produced by a group of fungi called Claviceps purpurea||Rye, wheat, sorghum, barley|
|Aflatoxin food poisoning||Aflatoxin produced by some groups of fungus (e.g. Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus parasiticus)||Cereal grains, groundnuts, peanuts, cottonseed, sorghum|
|Chemical toxins||Chemical poisoning||Heavy metals (e.g. lead, mercury, cadmium)||Fish, canned food Foods contaminated by utensils or coated with heavy metals|
|Pesticides and insecticides|
Residues on crops, vegetables, fruits
Accidental poisoning where some chemicals may be mistaken for food ingredients
When contaminated containers are used to hold stored foods
|Additives||Various food items where unauthorised additives may be added as colouring agents, sweeteners, preservatives, flavouring agents, etc.|