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Tracking food-poisoning outbreaks

This from Poynter's Al Tompkins:

The Scripps Howard News Service examined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's records of reported cases of foodborne illnesses and discovered that states differ widely in how aggressively they report food-poisoning outbreaks. Kentucky, for example, reported a total of four outbreaks over a five-year period. The District of Columbia, in the same period, reported 138 cases. The strong suspicion is, of course, that Kentucky just hasn't been keeping score.

Why does this matter? Read this introduction to the story package:

More than 50,000 people got sick or died from something they ate in a hidden epidemic that went undiagnosed by the nation's public health departments over a five-year period.

Americans play a sort of food-poisoning Russian roulette depending on where they live, an investigation by Scripps Howard News Service found. Slovenly restaurants, disease-infested food-processing plants and other sources of infectious illness go undetected all over the country, but much more frequently in some states than others.

Scripps studied 6,374 food-related disease outbreaks reported by every state to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2004. The causes of nearly two-thirds of the outbreaks in that period were officially listed as "unknown."

The findings translate into an alarming potential for tragedy. If health officials are unable to connect illness to food, victims who might eat from the same poisoned source cannot be warned. If food is known as the culprit, but the specific disease lurking within is not diagnosed, the victims may get even sicker or die without proper treatment.

The poor track record of so many state labs also raises chilling questions about their ability to spot or deal with a foodborne terrorist attack.

Families of children who got sick during the five-year period in the study tell heart-rending stories of heroic efforts they made to convince the medical establishment they were victims of food illness.

"My daughter's death would have been listed just as a 'stroke' and swept under the rug," said Todd Nelson, a Continental Airlines pilot and father of a 19-month-old girl who died of E. coli. "But I wanted to know what my daughter really died of. And I wanted somebody to blame."

The Nelson family believes Ana Leigh Nelson ate infected hamburger meat from a popular Minnesota restaurant in 2002. The family demanded further private tests that confirmed a rare strain of E. coli and then demanded that the medical examiner change her death certificate to correctly report death from complications of food poisoning.

"We sort of fell through the cracks," Nelson said.

The study found that Kentucky, Oklahoma and Nebraska are virtually blind to outbreaks of food sickness, rarely detecting that scattered illnesses have common food causes.

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Nov 29, 2006 at 12:15 PM


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