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Improving public health surveillance for food-borne infections: a new European project

This week, Prague, a new project was launched to improve surveillance of food-borne infections throughout Europe. Scientists from public health, food, and veterinary institutes agreed a plan that will allow, for the first time, the magnitude of health problems from food-borne disease to be measured across Europe.

Currently, collection of data on human infections such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, is not sensitive enough to give an accurate picture of the magnitude of the problem. Most countries do not have systems that determine the exact number of human infections, but use passive surveillance that relies on physicians and microbiology laboratories reporting infections.

Worse, this data cannot be compared between European countries as each uses different methods, and physicians have different practices for the management of patients with suspected food-borne infections. “This makes it difficult to calculate the overall burden and cost of diseases and it’s virtually impossible to compare the situation between the different European countries.” says Dr Kåre Mølbak, project leader.

The project, part of the Med-Vet-Net network, will use a cost-effective technique that has previously been used to study infections in animals to detect human infections. By testing for bacterial infections in human sera, such as blood already stored in medical facilities, scientists aim to fill the missing gaps in health surveillance data.

Researchers on the project have chosen two of the most common food-borne infections in Europe, Campylobacter and Salmonella, which are responsible for hundreds of thousands of cases of gastrointestinal illness in Europe every year (European Food Safety Authority). More accurate surveillance of these infections would allow better control methods to be implemented.

“This project brings together experts in serology, epidemiology, mathematical modelling and community-based studies allowing us to integrate information from different approaches of studying human infection” says Dr Mølbak. “By making full use of existing European studies and new data we will be able to calculate the ratios between infected cases, cases with symptoms in the community and lab reports.”

Once they have agreed testing methods for sera, researchers will plan and agree protocols for community-based studies of these bacteria. The group plan to conduct a pilot study based on sera stored in a number of different countries. Information on the level of antibodies to food-borne pathogens will be translated to measures of disease frequency, which again will be compared with the officially reported figures. This will pave the way for the creation of novel, more accurate Europe-wide surveillance systems for gastrointestinal illnesses.

Jennie Drew | alfa
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