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Foodborne Diseases Cause 48 Million Illnesses Annually

by U.S. Medicine

February 22, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC—Foodborne illnesses continue to be a problem in the US.

According to CDC, about one in six Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne illnesses.

These figures are the first comprehensive estimates since 1999 and are CDC’s first to estimate illnesses caused solely by foods consumed in the US.

Of the 48 million illnesses annually, CDC estimates that 9.4 million illnesses are due to 31 known foodborne pathogens. The remaining 38 million illnesses result from unspecified agents, which include known agents without enough data to make specific estimates, agents not yet recognized as causing foodborne illness, and agents not yet discovered. In both the 1999 and current estimates, unspecified agents were responsible for roughly 80% of estimated illnesses.

Among the known pathogens, salmonella is the leading cause of hospitalizations and deaths and was responsible for about 28% of deaths and 35% of hospitalizations. In terms of overall illnesses, CDC estimates that norovirus caused nearly 60% of total illnesses due to known pathogens. “This research is very important because it provides a window into which of the 31 known foodborne pathogens are causing most harm to the public and which cause the most severe illness,” said Chris Braden, MD, acting director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases. “By knowing this, CDC and our regulatory partners can better target those pathogens.”

While the new estimates show fewer illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths since 1999, Braden acknowledged that the lower numbers are largely the result of more, and in some cases better, data than the agency had in 1999, as well as new methods to calculate the current estimates. “For this reason, we really can’t compare the two estimates to measure trends, as tempting as that may be.”

In a separate analysis, CDC’s FoodNet surveillance system data, which tracks trends among common foodborne pathogens, has documented a decrease of 20% in illnesses from key pathogens during the past 10 years. However, these FoodNet pathogens make up only a small proportion of the illnesses included in the new estimates.

CDC estimates if it could reduce foodborne illnesses by just 1%, it could keep about half a million people from getting sick each year.

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