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Fast Response Crucial in Outbreaks of Food-Borne Illness: Study
Date:2/24/2011

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 23 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly three years after a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened about 1,500 people and claimed two lives, U.S. epidemiologists have learned that speed is of the essence in identifying sources of food contamination and preventing further infection.

But speed requires resources that cost money and, as an editorial accompanying the paper in the Feb. 23 online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine points out, funds may not be forthcoming.

Although the recently signed Food Safety Modernization Act could help the U.S. Food and Drug Administration respond better to outbreaks of food-borne illness, the reality is that Congress still needs to authorize the money, the editorial stated.

During the 2008 outbreak -- the largest episode of food-borne illness in the United States in 10 years -- investigators initially thought the contamination came from tomatoes. But the real culprit turned out to be raw jalapeno and serrano peppers imported from Mexico.

This information wasn't gleaned until after about 1,500 people had been sickened and more than 300 hospitalized, in addition to the two who died.

Identifying sick people earlier would have given health officials a huge head start on getting to the source of the problem, said study lead author Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"One of the challenges is the lag time between when someone becomes ill and when that person is interviewed to ask about foods they ate in the week before the illness," she said. "About half of the time, it can take up to 21 days as a median to interview ill people, and this lag can really make it hard not only to remember what food they ate but also for tracking people down."

In addition, she said, "investigating local clusters of illnesses, groups of people tha
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