Measures aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 appear to have reduced food poisoning in England, according to a study.

Non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) include travel restrictions, social distancing, lockdowns, and isolation policies.

Researchers looked at cases of seven reportable communicable diseases including food poisoning from January 2017 to January 2021. Data came from weekly reported diseases from the UKHSA’s notifications of infectious diseases (NOIDs) dataset for England.

The smallest decrease was observed for food poisoning, with a 56.4 percent decline from 191 to 83 cases per week. This is likely due to dining services such as home deliveries and takeaways remaining open and providing a potential route of transmission, said scientists.

Food poisoning includes Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria, Cyclospora, and Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and is defined as an illness caused by food contaminated with bacteria, a parasite, virus, chemical, or other toxins.

Another study found lab reporting of norovirus in England was impacted more than Campylobacter by the pandemic. Results were published in 2021 in the journal PLOS One.

Drop in food poisoning less than other diseases
Public health measures to suppress the spread of COVID-19 were introduced in England in March 2020, with people told to stay at home and all non-essential businesses closed.

The study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, was split into a pre-intervention time period from January 2017 to mid-March 2020 and a post-intervention period after mid-March 2020 to January 2021.

Before the introduction of non-pharmaceutical interventions, there were about 191 cases of food poisoning per week, and after this figure dropped to 83.

Cases of foodborne pathogens — typically transmitted via the fecal-oral route — showed a less severe decrease than the other diseases studied.

While enhanced levels of hand hygiene, closures of educational settings, and orders to work from home will have reduced human-to-human transmission of gastrointestinal infections, many dining services stayed open, providing a potential route of transmission, said scientists.  

Findings are consistent with research from Germany and the United States which found a less severe reduction in foodborne pathogens compared to respiratory infections following the introduction of non-pharmaceutical interventions.

However, researchers said widespread disruption of public health and front-line health services is likely to have resulted in reduced reporting and recording of notifiable diseases. There may also have been significant underreporting during the pandemic, as patients may have been less likely to seek treatment.

The study provided evidence of the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions in reducing the transmission of foodborne diseases. These findings could be used to inform scientific modeling and decisions regarding non-pharmaceutical interventions when faced with future disease outbreaks, said researchers.

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