The Dirty Half-Dozen

Wall Geckos, Rats, Cockroaches, Flies, Ants, and Spiders. These fellas make up what I have dubbed “The Dirty Half-Dozen”.

Present in almost every place that man occupies, whether residential or commercial, these guys have been implicated in many food borne illness incidents. By defecating on, feeding on, walking on, or dying in food, they contaminate food without restraint. And when such food is consumed without adequate food safety preventive measures the results are incidents of food borne illness.

They all conduct their activities in similar manner i.e basically by being carriers/ vehicles of pathogenic bacteria (bacteria are largely static and needs to helped around) and spreading them into food.

I’ll try and profile them one by one:

Wall Geckos – The stealthiest of them all. In complete silence and with high reflexes, these creatures creep from kitchen walls and ceiling to shelves and cupboards contaminating every kitchen utensil in their path. When such utensils are used for eating it can result in food borne illness albeit not directly from the food.

Rats – Rats don’t waste much time with kitchen hardware. What they are after is the food itself. Leftover food in the sink, waste food in the dustbin, raw food in the larder are all their favorites. However they don’t just have a bite and move on…in many cases they routinely defecate on the food and by this introduce dangerous pathogens into the food. Inevitably they crawl around and over utensils in the kitchen like the geckos and contaminate these as well. Urine deposit of rats on canned foods have been implicated in a number of deadly food borne illness incidents.

Cockroaches – Cockroaches are known to carry various food borne illness bacteria. Being very versatile (they can climb, crawl and fly short distances), they are very difficult to eradicate once they gain a foothold in a place.

Flies – Perhaps the best known of the lot. Flies pose a danger to health because many pathogens have been found on and in flies and their droppings.

Flies contaminate food in four ways:
1. To feed, they regurgitate enzymes and partly-digested food from the previous meal;
2. They continually defecate;
3. They carry bacteria on the hairs on their body and legs;
4. Pupal cases, eggs, and dead bodies end up in our food.
(R.A. Sprenger 2005)

Ants – Ants are vigorously attracted to sweet foods and that’s where you would almost always find them. However where there are no sweet foods in sight, all other kinds of food may be attacked. Ants transmit bacteria picked up from the soil, from drains, from the toilet into food as they forage around. Their physical presence in food is an equally nuisance form of physical food contamination.

Spiders – Spiders are usually not considered as pests that propagate food borne illness bacteria. They seem to be harmless idyllic creatures lazily spinning their webs in obscure corners of the kitchen. Nevertheless behind this unassuming profile is a reputation of being a transmitter of food borne illness bacteria. What makes spiders a double worry when it comes to food borne illness is that they occupy a low rung in the animal kingdom food chain such that wherever there is widespread presence of spiders one can be certain that wall geckos would follow suit in search of food (spiders are perfect meals for wall geckos) further enhancing the infestation of the house with pests.

Having profiled these creatures, it must be mentioned that no matter how hard humans try, one or more of these folks will inevitably get into the house one way or the other. The trick is to prevent them taking a foothold to reduce the chances of food borne illness incidences in the home. This can be done by:

1. Good housekeeping – maintaining a clean and tidy environment to deprive them of food and harbourage.

2. Storing all food in closed covered containers where possible.

3. Ensuring waste food generated are disposed of quickly.

4. Avoid clutter in the house. Old newspapers, rags, empty cartons make very comfortable nests for rats and hiding places for cockroaches.

5. Employ the use of pesticides and rodenticides – although with caution as these may end up contaminating food if not used with great discretion.

6. Employ physical control means such as traps, nets etc.

7. When coming from the open market, decant the local produce into clean containers before bringing into the house to avoid bringing home these creatures from the market.

8. Keep kitchen utensils and crockery secured and well stored.

With these few steps and many more that can be devised, The Dirty Half-Dozen will be put in proper check and the frontier of food borne illness is pushed back further.

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Teaching Kids FoodBorne Illness Prevention

Because children belong to the category of persons that are classified as high risk group when it comes to food-borne illness and they are more susceptible to food-borne illness and experience more severe consequences of food borne illness than adults, teaching them at an early age about food-borne illness is helpful in protecting them because when children become aware that food can be a source of illness it helps them make informed decisions on what to eat and what not to eat especially when they are alone or with their peers, away from the watchful eyes of adults.

Food-Borne Illness Prevention Initiative recently carried out a food borne illness awareness program for pupils of selected primary schools in Eket LGA. A total of 367 pupils from 6 primary schools were taught about food borne illness, what causes it, how to prevent it, and they were given food borne illness family awareness packs to take the message back home to their parents and families to help spread the awareness about food borne illness. The program was a success and the feedback from school authorities and parents were very positive. In this way FIPI aims to create the awareness that will contribute to reducing the public health burden of food borne illness in our society. Some photo shots of the program are below. Children interacting with FIPI volunteers and being taught hand washing techniques and basic food borne illness prevention steps.

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Dealing With Cholera Joints: What’s The Best Approach?

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I stumbled upon them last weekend in, surprisingly of all places, Victoria Island one of the most “highbrowed” neighborhoods in Lagos. Rows upon rows of street food vendors with patrons hustling to get the attention of the food seller and jostling for a place to sit with their plates of indescribably cheap food. Welcome to what I would call “Cholera Alley” or “Cholera Cul de Sac”. Not the most enviable place to have your lunch except you are amongst the many Lagosians living below the poverty level of less than a dollar a day.

Popularly called Cholera Joints, they are familiar sights in this country, especially in urban centers. Preparing and selling food under the most unhygienic circumstances, these roadside food vendors have gained notoriety as public health menaces, perhaps the number one public health menace in our urban society. Sometimes late last year four persons died in Lagos, from what the Lagos State Ministry of Health confirmed to be cholera, after patronizing roadside food vendors like these.

I was told that the term “Cholera Joint” was coined on Nigerian University and Polytechnic campuses many years ago to describe those low life cafeterias with plank and plywood walls and pot-holed concrete floors situated on the fringes of campus society where food is sold cheap and usually patronized by those students who couldn’t afford the opulent restaurants located in the Student Union Building.

These dodgy canteens were aptly named cholera joints by students because except you are extremely lucky you stand the chance of bagging a dose of vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera, in addition to the cheap meal you pay for. As it is “Cholera joints” are not limited to campuses, the entire society is dotted with them, encouraged and spurred on by the high poverty levels in the land and further enhancing the public health burden of food-borne illnesses.

The public health problem of street food vendors is not limited to Nigeria, it’s a phenomenon common to developing countries. The question is how should this problem be addressed here in Nigeria?

Should there be an outright clamp down on them? I don’t think this strategy will work for three simple reasons:
1. These vendors are so widespread that it is next to impossible to locate them all to implement any effective clamping down exercise, and because they are very mobile with few fixed assets it will be easy to avoid being detected.
2. Secondly clamping down outrightly may cause social upheaval no matter how minor it will be anyway. It can be viewed as the rich again taking it out on the poor, a regular sentiment in our classed Nigerian society because majority of the poor depend on street food as restaurants are beyond their reach.
3. Street food vending has significant economic relevance. It occupies a large portion of Nigeria’s informal business sector and may be too important to outrightly clamp down on for this reason.

Another option is to legislate and regulate their activities. This would have been an effective strategy if the appropriate government commitment especially at the state and local government levels is present and also if there is availability of resources to monitor compliance to regulations and legislations. The first is very questionable and the second is doubtful because of how widespread and ubiquitous these food sellers exist all over the urban areas.

A third option is to reach out to these street food vendors and engage them in awareness campaigns, teaching them basic food hygiene practices that will protect their patrons and themselves, helping them to understand the benefits of improved hygiene and sanitation and where possible providing basic infrastructure for them such as food warmers, brooms, napkins, soaps, etc. Now this approach will naturally be painstaking and requires patience and persistence. Each roadside food vendor needs to be convinced and convinced thoroughly of the need for change and there are hundreds of thousands of them dotting the landscape. But it can be done, resulting in a win-win situation for government, the food vendors themselves and their customers.

This third option can be effectively pursued by NGOs with adequate fundings and grants and this is part of the objectives of Food-Borne Illness Prevention Initiative to reduce the public health burden of food borne illness in the society.