We’ve all been there at some point in our lives. We are feeling just fine, and then all of the sudden it hits you. Like a ton of bathroom bricks. It might start with a bit of diarrhea. It’s just a case of the runs. I’m good. Everything is fine. Then the nausea and vomiting kick in. Pretty soon you are negotiating your priorities between the toilet and trashcan. Must be a stomach bug. A few others in the house have it too. It’s just something that is going around.
Unfortunately, most “stomach bugs” are actually foodborne illness. But you are not alone. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people each year become sick from a foodborne illness. About 128,000 will end up in the hospital and 3,000 will die. Foodborne illness results when harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or even toxins or chemicals contaminate food or water and makes people sick. Researchers have discovered 250 distinct foodborne illnesses. So that “stomach bug” that isn’t really a stomach bug isn’t so rare after all.
If you are lucky it is simply an isolated incident and you will recover just fine. Perhaps a small mishandling of food or a lapse in handwashing that contributed to your illness. But sometimes your illness could be part of a bigger situation. You may find yourself as one of the many included in a foodborne outbreak.
What Exactly Makes an Outbreak?
Believe it or not there is an exact definition of an “outbreak” and it is simpler than you might think. According to FoodSafety.gov, an outbreak is when “two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink.” This is not limited to the people sitting at your table. You and a few other diners in a restaurant may consume the same contaminated food and end up with the same illness.
Sometimes it is as little as two people. Though more often than not, the outbreak event is a bit larger. An outbreak could have occurred from one minor handling misstep all the way to a contaminated ingredient included in a product that is shipped nationwide, potentially infecting thousands. But how are outbreaks discovered?
How Are Outbreaks Linked?
Before an outbreak is discovered, someone sick enough to seek medical attention sees their healthcare provider. They present with the typical symptoms of foodborne illness and their doctor has a hunch it might be Salmonella, E. coli, or some other foodborne offender. A sample is obtained and sent to a lab for screening. The doctor will have a list of pathogens he or she wants the lab to test for. Once that information comes back, the sample can be forwarded to the local public health laboratory for more specific testing.
The lab can perform what is known as a genetic analysis that generates a DNA fingerprint. Essentially a DNA fingerprint is a unique identifier of the particular strain of the bacteria causing the illness. Within Salmonella there are several distinct versions. Investigators will upload this information into an online database called PulseNet that will compare the DNA fingerprint with others in the system to identify clusters of disease. Clusters of the same illness with the same DNA fingerprint indicate a trend that should be investigated to determine the source. A source can only be mitigated if it is identified. Unfortunately, most foodborne illness goes unreported.
Most Illness Goes Unreported
Most normally healthy individuals recover without issue while just allowing the illness to run its course and treating the symptoms. They get sick, they deal with it, they get better, and they move on with their lives.
Other less fortunate individuals will experience more severe symptoms or complications. The very young (under 5 years old), the very old (over 65 years old), and those with a compromise immune system (due to pre-existing illness or medications) are among those of higher risk for severe illness. Many will require hospitalizations and even some of them will die.
The CDC takes into consideration the amount of potential under-reporting of foodborne illness that occurs each year. In fact, they have done studies to identify estimated multipliers to apply to current reported statistics to get a better idea of how many people are actually expected to be affected by the outbreak or illness.
Don’t Be Selfish. Report Foodborne Illness.
Let’s go back a few steps to think about how investigators identify a source. Well.., As I have said, it starts with patients reporting foodborne illness. The sample undergoes genetic testing and is uploaded into the PulseNet database where it can be linked to others who may be sick at the same time with the same illness.
Investigators will start putting together the pieces once the connections are made. Interviews are conducted. Follow-up testing on potential sources is performed. The more interviews performed the better the picture of the overlapping food sources. If only the very sick participate in the interview process, it will take longer for all of the pieces to come together.
While you might be able to recover fairly quickly, others may not be so lucky. The longer it takes to get this information together and identify a source, the more people that are exposed everyday as investigators search for answers. A two year old girl might have been able to avoid that contaminated fruit. An 80 year old man might have been able to avoid that brand of cereal. That pregnant woman might have been able to avoid that frozen entree. That 50 year old cancer patient might have been able to avoid that affected juice.
In each of these situations, severe and life-threatening complications such as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), endocarditis, reactive arthritis, blood sepsis, and other terrible symptoms of foodborne illness is a strong possibility.
If You Have Symptoms, Get Tested. Do Your Part! You Have the Ability to Make a Difference.
It’s inconvenient, I know. But no more inconvenient than spending a long weekend held hostage in your bathroom. Others could be experiencing the same and worse in the confines of a hospital room.
Take a little time and notify your health care provider. Notify your local public health department. Make a list of the foods and places at which you have eaten in the last week. Be prepared to answer some questions.
You can help save a life by doing your part to help prevent others from being exposed to foodborne illness.
By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)