x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

WHO food poison surveillance system could be introduced in UAE

A new integrated surveillance system by the World Health Organisation could help reduce food poisoning cases in the UAE.

DUBAI // The UAE could be one of five countries selected by the World Health Organisation to enter a new programme aimed at reducing food poisoning cases.

The integrated surveillance of antimicrobial resistance system will find out how antibiotics used on animals can affect human health.

"We need a monitoring and surveillance programme to be able to detect outbreaks at a very early stage," said Awa Aidara-Kane, a scientist at the WHO's department of food safety and zoonoses (infectious diseases that can pass from plant or animal to human). "So we must develop, validate and improve analytical methods."

She was speaking at Dubai's seventh International Food Safety Conference which took place at the International Convention and Exhibition Centre last month.

Animal antibiotics are prone to the same problem as those for humans: if they are misused, there is a danger the organisms they are intended to kill can become resistant to them.

Those resistant organisms can then be transferred to humans if meat is contaminated during slaughtering or if it is undercooked.

"Contaminated food usually smells and tastes normal but pathogens may survive traditional food cooking," said Ms Aidara-Kane.

Infected animals often show no signs of illness, making it hard to tell when they are carrying such pathogens. That, says Ms Aidara-Kane, means public health initiatives need to include apparently health animals - which is not the case in most countries, including the UAE.

"There are no good surveillance systems in most countries," said Dr Isabelle Walls, the president of the International Association for Food Protection. "It's important to be able to identify the food to recall it but you have to look at the system in which the food is being grown."

The WHO estimates 2.2 million people die of diarrhoeal diseases each year, most of them children under five. In the UAE, data collection has just started.

In 2008, the WHO set up a system in Geneva to help it spot diseases early enough to prevent them - starting at the level of animal husbandry. The aim is to find out how antibiotics are used in food-producing animals, to which they are commonly given to treat and prevent infections and to encourage growth.

Any microbes that manage to survive antibiotic treatment - such as salmonella and campylobacter - can then be passed on to humans in meat, fruit, drinking water or milk. "That's why it's important to have surveillance at the farm level, at retail level and at consumer level," said Ms Aidara-Kane. "Food safety goes from feed to food."

Countries like Denmark and the US have already put such a system in place. Others are in the process of doing so. No Middle East country has yet to participate.

"Foodborne disease surveillance is critically important," said Bobby Krishna, the Dubai Municipality's senior food health officer, "because it helps us find an outbreak or a pathogen which comes into the country as soon as possible.

"When people get sick, we get notification from hospitals and we immediately know that a particular organism is causing it, so knowing straight away is vital."

Now the WHO is calling on experts in the region to submit plans by the end of next month for projects to monitor resistance across animals, humans and food.

The proposal should include at least two of the most important pathogens and "indicator organisms" such as enterococcus and E. coli, which are used as markers of the quality and safety of food. Officials in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, however, were reluctant to commit to entering a UAE bid.

Funds will be allocated to up to five countries, which could include the UAE, said Ms Aidara-Kane.

"It's important to have the system in the Middle East," she added. Because food here comes from all over the world so it's in the region's interest to support and participate in these global initiatives.

cmalek@thenational.ae