x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A common illness, yet often avoidable

Summer increases the likelihood of food contamination.

ABU DHABI // Temperatures during the summer months dramatically increase the ever-present risk of contracting food poisoning, according to one of the region's leading experts on infection control. The optimum temperature for bacteria to develop on food is between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius - a problem in the Emirates as room temperature is often above 30C, said Dr Mansour al Zarouni, chairman of infection control at Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah.

"All that many of the organisms need is food and heat," he said. "In this country the optimum temperature can be achieved very easily. The two main factors which cause food poisoning are temperature and mishandling of the food." There are 250 different food-related diseases, and although many of the bacteria, parasites and viruses that cause them are easy to avoid, food poisoning remains one of the most common illnesses in the world.

"The cases that doctors and hospitals see is just the tip of the iceberg," Dr al Zarouni said. "Only some cases go to see a doctor so the extent of the problem is not known. Also, we will all get something a few times a year, but very mildly so we may not even realise it. Ninety per cent of the time we do not go to a doctor." The Emirates does not compile federal statistics on the number of food-borne diseases contracted annually. But in the US, there are 76 million of them, leading to 5,000 deaths, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those worst affected are usually the very old and very young, or healthy people exposed to very high levels of an organism.

Food can become contaminated in a number of ways, many of which basic hygiene, such as regular hand washing, would prevent. Once the toxin, bacteria or virus has been ingested, it travels through the stomach into the intestine, where it attaches to the intestine walls and begins to multiply. Because the toxins, or microbes, first affect the gastrointestinal functions of the body, the first symptoms are usually diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea and abdominal cramps.

"People should always wash their hands when handling food, especially chicken and meats," Dr al Zarouni said. "There are basic rules which make a very big difference." Many of the microbes need to be ingested in large numbers before they have an effect. High temperatures help them multiply, making the UAE and other hot countries high-risk. But most bacteria, parasites and viruses can be killed when heated above 78C.

It is crucial to keep raw meat and poultry away from other food during the cooking process, as the microbes can be easily transferred via cutlery, chopping boards, on hands and through water. munderwood@thenational.ae