Findings announced today by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that nearly 30 percent of all deaths from foodborne illness are in children under the age of 5, despite the fact that they make up on 9 percent of the world’s population.

This news is the focal point of WHO’s “Estimates of the global burden of foodborne diseases”--the most comprehensive report to date on the impact of contaminated food on health and well-being.

“Until now, estimates of foodborne diseases were vague and imprecise. This concealed the true human costs of contaminated food. This report sets the record straight,” says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO. “Knowing which foodborne pathogens are causing the biggest problems in which parts of the world can generate targeted action by the public, governments, and the food industry.”

WHO specifically studied the effects of 31 agents including bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals--all of which lead of 600 million illnesses worldwide each year. That’s equivalent to almost 1 in 10 people. About 42,000 people die from the agents WHO studied, including 125,000 children under age 5.

While WHO does acknowledge that foodborne diseases are a global concern, the regions of Africa and Southeast Asia experience the highest incidence of foodborne illness and subsequent deaths, including those of young children.

Diarrhoeal diseases are responsible for more than half of the global burden of foodborne diseases, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230,000 deaths every year. Children are at particular risk of foodborne diarrhoeal diseases, with 220 million falling ill and 96,000 dying every year. Diarrhoea is often caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, eggs, fresh produce and dairy products contaminated by norovirus, Campylobacter, non-typhoidal Salmonella and pathogenic Escherichia coli (E. coli). Other major sources of foodborne disease are typhoid fever, hepatitus A, Taenia solium (a tapeworm), and aflatoxin (produced by mold on grain that is stored inappropriately).

WHO found that Salmonella is a health concern in all regions of the world. However, other diseases--typhoid fever, foodborne cholera, and those caused by pathogenic E. coli--are much more common in low-income countries. Both middle- and low-income regions also experience unsafe water, poor hygiene, inadequate food production and low literacy levels--all of which are believed to play a role in the contraction of foodborne illness. Campylobacter is most commonly found in high-income countries.

The report maintains that, “Food safety is a shared responsibility, says WHO. The report’s findings underscore the global threat posed by foodborne diseases and reinforce the need for governments, the food industry and individuals to do more to make food safe and prevent foodborne diseases. There remains a significant need for education and training on the prevention of foodborne diseases among food producers, suppliers, handlers and the general public. WHO is working closely with national governments to help set and implement food safety strategies and policies that will in turn have a positive impact on the safety of food in the global marketplace.”

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