Food Borne Illness Data Dilemma

Herein lies the problem. In this country, where is the current food borne illness data?

I mentioned in one of my previous posts on how president Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act in the U.S which is aimed at minimizing food borne illness risks to the American consumer using a science and risk based approach.

Now let’s give it a thought that back home here in Nigeria the government seeks to do a similar deed. The first practical step will be to identify the extent of the present food borne illness challenge in the country and this can be done using the best available and current data on the distribution of food borne illness occurrence in the country to answer questions like:
1. Which pathogens in which foods cause the greatest impact on public health.
2. Which age group is most affected by foodborne illness.
3. How many persons were affected within a certain period.
4. Which region of the country is most affected.
Etc Etc.

Herein lies the problem. In this country, where is the current food borne illness data?

There is a dearth of accurate and up to date/current statistics on food borne illness in this country and I am speaking from experience.

When writing my MSc thesis on barriers to the uptake of HACCP Food Safety Management System in the hospitality industry in Nigeria, I found it a lot easier to obtain current data of food borne illness incidents in various hospitality settings in Europe, North America, the Far East and Middle East and even South Africa than to get one for my home country.

I tried to figure out where I could turn to get the information I needed. FMH? NAFDAC? NMA?

The little statistics available at the National Bureau of Statistics were somewhat too outdated to be valid for the comparison research work I needed to do (except for cholera, the food borne and water borne disease that occurs so frequently that one can collate its statistics from the newspapers). That was six years ago and little has changed between then and now.

It will be fairly accurate to say that when compared to other public health issues (infant mortality, road accident fatalities, HIV/AIDS, Polio…..you name it) “home-grown” current data on food borne illness isn’t easy to come by in this country. The W.H.O published some data on diarrheal deaths in Nigeria which needs to be updated, perhaps to be updated by data generated and published by our own government.

Traditionally, it is acknowledged globally that the true extent of food borne illness occurrence cannot be accurately determined basically due to the problem of under reporting. Nevertheless there should still be something available to work with. Countries that pay optimum attention to public health issues always have current statistics to work with. The place of availability of data in problem solving cannot be overemphasized.

An adequate and effective centralized national food borne illness surveillance system needs to developed in this country where State and Local Government ministries and departments of health will voluntarily report food borne illness incidents or outbreaks in their areas of jurisdiction. Obviously this depends also on the public’s willingness to report food borne illness but this can be addressed by creating awareness to change public cynicisms & stereotypes and also creating conducive atmosphere for self-reporting.

The starting point for reducing the public health burden of food borne illness in this country is the availability of current and up-to-date data.

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Examination Blues

I spent this past weekend in Lagos with my good friend Gbenga Oni. Gbenga and I have been friends since 1984 from FGC Sokoto. In the course of our many gists he reminded me of how he missed out during the mock WAEC examination that we did in our final year because he was sick from food borne illness. I couldn’t even remember the incident as he tried to describe to me how he was so weak from frequent visit to the dormitory toilet he couldn’t take 5 steps at a time.

According to him he spent almost the entire mock examination period on the sick bed in the school dispensary while I and his other colleagues were slugging it out in the exam hall. Fortunately he was nursed back to health before the main WAEC examination few weeks later.

Surmounting Nigeria’s Food Borne Illness Problem.

Thinking about it, the food borne illness problem in Nigeria is not an insurmountable problem. All it needs to be surmounted is first and foremost an acknowledgement of its existence i.e that we have problem of food borne illness in this country and secondly a full commitment on the part of the government at all tiers (federal, state, local) to deploy resources required to deal with this matter.

When I consider the situation in the country as per food borne illness, many times I wonder and ponder “what is on the mind of the government concerning the public health burden of food borne illness in this country?”, “is the government even aware of the severity of the problem?”, “has the arm of government responsible for health matters in this country, the Federal Ministry of Health, taken any concrete steps in recent times (or should I say in living memory) in the direction of addressing the problem of food borne illness”, “what will it take for the government to upgrade food borne illness to the status of a public health issue that needs to be attended to like HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis”.

I know a National Food Safety Committee (NFSC) was set up two or three years ago but this committee has very little or nothing to do with solving the public health burden of food borne illness in the country, it’s terms of reference is largely focused on managing the process of ensuring Nigerian food products meet international safety standards for exports. So it’s more of an economic outfit than a health related body.

Even at that, one is yet to see any visible and tangible work that this enigmatic committee (I refer to it as an enigma because the names of the members of the committee or at the least the chairperson heading the committee are/is unknown in the public domain, no report or recommendation has been published by the committee since it’s inception, type “National Food Safety Committee of Nigeria” in any of the search engines and you will draw a blank or at most be  referred to some blogsites commenting about it being setup three years ago) has done. It truly has a lot of ground to cover if it truly wants to justify its creation.

It is also concerns me that when I check the websites of the Federal Ministry of Health, there is nothing about food borne illness in all its categories, the same applies to NAFDAC (National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control) although kudos needs to be given to the later for creating at least a level of public awareness about the fact that food can be dangerous to health. However the agency is more engaged in registering manufactured and finished food products and regulating their manufacturing process as well as combating fake and adulterated drugs and medicines in the country. When it comes to food from kitchens in hotels, restaurants, hospitals, boarding schools, prisons, cafeterias, hostels, fast food outlets etc. NAFDAC has no visibility.

I have heard of NACA (National Agency for the Control of Aids) and MAPS (Malaria Action Program for States), government agencies in this country that are visible to the public and in the media and with up-to-date and robust websites and calendar of activities addressing these two health issues. But concerning food borne illness in Nigeria, all we have is a worrying silence on the part of Federal, States, and Local Governments yet the casualty counts of food borne and water borne illness keeps mounting periodically in the country.

An example of a government with the will and commitment to deal with food borne illness is the United States. Three years ago President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act which is aimed at minimizing food borne illness risks to the American consumer using a science and risk based approach.

I believe we need to have a similar level of government commitment in Nigeria to address the public health burden of food borne illness in this country.

Common Foodborne Bacteria Might Be ‘Trigger’ For Multiple Sclerosis

“New research presented at a scientific meeting adds to a growing body of evidence that a toxin produced by a common food bug may trigger multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system.” (C. Paddock 2014)

Read full story: Food-borne Illness Bacteria Linked To Multiple Sclerosis