Three years after a Salmonella outbreak, first linked to United States Tomatoes and then Mexican Peppers, that sickened about 1,500 people and claimed two lives, U.S. epidemiologists have learned that speed is of the essence in identifying sources of food contamination and preventing further infection. However, in an editorial accompanying the paper in the February 23rd online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine points out, increased speed requires resources that cost money. Identifying sick people earlier would have given health officials a huge head start on getting to the source of the problem, said study lead author Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Behravesh.png“One of the challenges is the lag time between when someone becomes ill and when that person is interviewed to ask about foods they ate in the week before the illness,” she said. “About half of the time, it can take up to 21 days as a median to interview ill people, and this lag can really make it hard not only to remember what food they ate but also for tracking people down.” In addition, she said, “investigating local clusters of illnesses, groups of people that ate at one restaurant in one state, can be aided by looking at menus or recipes to help us efficiently identify foods and even specific ingredients.” Behravesh said a collaboration of agencies and laboratories have established the “OutbreakNet Sentinel Sites, or OSS, are one of the key components that could have saved time in this (2008) outbreak.”

Correctly figuring out outbreaks earlier can prevent illnesses and save lives by getting the offending food product off the shelves faster and alerting consumers to safe food handling practices. As important is a faster response gives epidemiologists greater information to link a specific food and a specific manufacturer to an outbreak and recall. Cutting time between first illnesses can save millions in medical expenses, and being more accurate on the illness vector saves an industry from an undeserved black eye.

Congress should devote the resources necessary to prevent illnesses and prevent unnecessary business loss.

  • Doc Raymond

    Since the Anthrax attacks through the mail in 2001 and the bombing of the World Trade Center, Congress, through the CDC, has been providing the states with additional hundreds of millions of dollars annually to increase their ability to respond to a public health emergency. Those dollars have gone to increase public health laboratory capacity, education of health care professionals, health alert systems AND an increase in Epidemiology capacity to investigate outbreaks of illnesses, man-made or naturally occuring. Congress should demand a public reporting, state by state, of exactly what they are doing with those dollars before allocating any more funds. .

  • Dog Doctor

    Doc Raymond, Congress does get this information. The important thing that many Congress people have to take the tea bags out of their ears and listen to testimony presented and review where funding has gone. Wether giving 40 billions to the big oil companies serves the public while cutting 1.5 billion from public health grants. Less the 5% of the preparedness grants has gone to Food and Agriculture as opposed to 95% going to other areas such as communication. When the FEMA director was asked to demostrate how the funds had improved preparedness and he was unable to.
    Therefore if you are going to ask congress to demand reports, you should define what these reports should contain and what the measure are since in the past they have not been agreed to.
    So ask your Republican friends to support public health and fund it then you can ask for your reports.

  • Gabrielle Meunier

    What I recommended when I testified to Congress in Feb., 2009, is that as soon as a victim has a PFGE diagnosis of a foodborne illness, they should be directed to logon to a website that is Operated by the CDC to fill out a food questionnaire. If the victim is in the hospital then they log-on through the hospital. If the victim is a child and is not hospitalized, then the Doctor’s office assists if they have no access through their home. This should be so simple and for some reason this is not instituted yet. I believe that part of the problem is turf wars. I believe the State Health Depts have been in charge of Outbreaks and they should let the CDC be involved in the coordination more. Let the CDC take and correlate the food questionnaire. The State should have access to the data, but the CDC should have the database that is shared by all states. Every hospital and Doctor should have access to it so that they may advise their patients. The first line of defense is the Doctor’s office and the Hospital. This is where the breakdown of communication happens because they (the Doctors and Hospitals) are directed by the local health departments which may be inadequately funded and not be capable of tracking down illnesses. However, I also believe the CDC needs to use more commonsense in their analysis. Their data analysis is not proficiently speedy and lacks the “Mom” test.