The annual cost of acute gastroenteritis for the Belgian economy has been estimated at between €210 million ($239 million) and €1 billion ($1.14 billion).

A study by the Belgian institute for health Sciensano estimated the burden of illness from 2010 to 2014 in terms of deaths, patients admitted to hospitals, people consulting their general practitioner (GP,) and cases in the community. The work was published in the journal Epidemiology and Infection.

Cases of acute gastroenteritis are mainly due to food poisoning and close contact with infected people. To evaluate the cost of acute gastroenteritis including diarrhea, vomiting, etc., Sciensano used mortality figures, number of hospitalizations, number of GP visits, and population surveys.

Belgium’s burden
As in other high-income countries, acute gastroenteritis is common and represented a significant burden to society in Belgium, according to the report. The agency estimated 343 deaths, 27,707 hospitalized patients, 464,222 GP consultations, and more than 10 million cases occur on average per year. In the United States there are an estimated 48 million foodborne illnesses annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Belgium the incidence of 0.91 cases per person per year is at the lower end of the range of those estimated from retrospective surveys in other high-income countries. A review of estimates of incidence and prevalence from 33 studies found a range from 0.1 to 3.5 episodes per person year.

The study quantified the health impact in terms of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) with 11,855 DALYs per year.

Financial impact
Economic burden was projected to represent direct costs of €112 million ($127 million), indirect costs of €927 million ($1.05 billion) and an average total cost of €103 ($117) per case and €94 ($107) per person.

The direct cost of acute gastroenteritis cases covers the medical costs of GP visits, hospitalizations and medication. Indirect costs linked to the loss of productivity is more difficult to assess. Conservative estimates point to nearly €100 million ($114 million) a year but it could be more than €1 billion ($1.14 billion).

“We considered two scenarios for estimating the extent of absenteeism among patients and caregivers, which resulted in widely different estimates, ranging from €927 million ($1.05 billion) in our baseline scenario to €98 million ($111 million) in a more conservative alternative scenario,” according to researchers.

Nearly 70 percent, or €78 million ($89 million), of direct medical costs were because of hospitalization, while another 15 percent, or €17 million ($19 million), was due to the medication.

Estimated economic burden including direct and indirect costs of gastrointestinal infections or foodborne illnesses in high-income countries varies between €14 ($16) in Australia and €1,305 ($1,483) in the United States per case.

Results were higher than originally assumed and indicated major health and economic losses associated with acute gastroenteritis in Belgium. To support risk management, the researchers said further studies are needed to unravel the contribution of specific pathogens to the burden and support interventions.

Sciensano encouraged consumers to consider five basic tips for safer food:

  1. Get in the habit of cleanliness
  2. Separate raw foods from cooked foods
  3. Cook food properly
  4. Keep food at the right temperature and respect the cold and hot chains
  5. Use water and safe products

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