The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) met in Geneva last week as part of its effort to better understand the global public health implications of foodborne illness. During the meeting, the group discussed some of its preliminary findings, which indicate that the public health burden of foodborne disease is over three times higher than previously thought.

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FERG estimates 1.1 million people over the age of five in Africa and Asia die from diarrhea annually, previous estimates were in the neighborhood of 300,000. (The UN estimates that 1.5 million children under the age of five lose their lives to diarrheal illness annually).

“The burden of disease from diarrhea…is significantly higher than was previously considered,”  said Jorgen Schlundt, director of Food Safety and Zoonoses at WHO.

FERG is conducting a six-year-long study aimed at providing better data on global foodborne illness, the final results are expected in 2012.

“There are still some countries that believe that food safety is not very important and that not many people die in relation to food safety and foodborne diseases but we have data to show that it is a significant problem and it’s something that could be dealt with,” said Schlundt.

The WHO created FERG in response to what the organization considers a growing threat to global health. 

“Recent global developments are increasingly challenging international health security,” according to the WHO. “These developments include the growing industrialization and trade of food production, the rapid urbanization associated with a more frequent food preparation/consumption outside the home and the emergence of new or antibiotic resistant pathogens.”

“The global burden of foodborne diseased and its impact on development and trade is currently unknown,” according to the initiative’s website. “Reliable epidemiological data are, however, urgently needed to enable policy makers as well as stakeholders to appropriately allocate resources to foodborne disease, prevention and control efforts.”

The panel’s ultimate estimates can also give stakeholders the information necessary to asses the cost-effectivenesss of food safety policies by providing better quantitative data on the economic costs associated with foodborne disease.

FERG is part of the WHO Initiative to Estimate the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases, which was launched in 2006 by the WHO’s food safety department, and works in collaboration with several partners, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.