By Steven Reinberg
WEDNESDAY, Dec. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Each year in the United States some 48 million people, or one in every six Americans, are sickened by the food they eat, according to two federal health reports issued Wednesday.
Of those who get sick, about 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die annually, and many of the deaths and hospitalizations are due to salmonella, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. It was salmonella that led to the massive recall earlier this year of millions of suspect eggs.
The number of people reported as affected by foodborne illness has dipped from previous years, the CDC said, but that's mostly due to improvement in the quality and quantity of the data used and new methods used to estimate foodborne disease.
The bottom line is that "these illnesses are associated with billions in health care costs, and have a substantial human cost in severe illnesses and, in some cases, long-term health effects," Dr. Chris Braden, acting director of CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases said during a morning press conference.
"These are preventable diseases," he said. "For many of these diseases we know what interventions work to prevent them and we need to do more to lower the impact of these diseases in the United States."
Of the 48 million annual illnesses, 9.4 million result from 31 known foodborne pathogens. The other 38 million illnesses are from unspecified pathogens, which include known diseases, but without enough data for accurate estimates. These include pathogens not yet known to cause foodborne illness and pathogens not yet discovered, Braden said.
"If we could reduce foodborne illnesses by just 1 percent we could keep 500,000 people each year from getting sick from the foods that they eat," he noted.
Other key findings in the two reports:
- Salmonella was responsible for about 28 percent of deaths and 35 percent of hospitalizations.
- Seven pathogens accounted for about 90 percent of estimated illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths: Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E. coli O157, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens.
- Almost 60 percent of less severe illnesses were caused by one pathogen: norovirus.
The two reports are published in the Dec. 15 online edition of the CDC's journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, and update the last report on foodborne illness issued in 1999.
The new estimates of deaths and hospitalizations are lower than in the 1999 report, probably because the amount and quality of data has improved and experts now have better methods to gauge foodborne disease, Braden said.
He noted that data from CDC's FoodNet surveillance system, which tracks trends of common foodborne pathogens, has shown a 20 percent decrease in illnesses from key pathogens during the past 10 years. However, the FoodNet pathogens account for only a small number of the illnesses included in the new estimates, Braden added.
For these and other reasons, one cannot compare the 1999 report with the new reports or FoodNet data to really determine whether or not there is more or less foodborne illness today than 10 years ago, or what pathogens are involved in all cases, he said.
Commenting on the reports, infectious disease expert Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University in New York City, said that "it's important that most of foodborne illness is due to norovirus. That's what a lot of us believed and it's one of the reasons we don't put people on antibiotics when they come in with diarrhea or vomiting -- because there is no treatment for norovirus."
In addition, because so many illnesses are being caused by unidentified pathogens, "that really ramps up the need for better scrutiny, better surveillance and better prevention techniques and better screening tests for pathogens," he said.
Many of these food outbreaks are due to sloppiness in food processing, Siegel said.
"I'm not a big government guy, but there could be stronger standards," he said. "These articles identify what is just an awful problem in the United States, which is foodborne illness."