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Foodborne diseases


    Over 200 diseases are caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances such as heavy metals. This growing public health problem causes considerable socioeconomic impact though strains on health-care systems lost productivity, and harming tourism and trade. These diseases contribute significantly to the global burden of disease and mortality.

    Foodborne diseases are caused by contamination of food and occur at any stage of the food production, delivery and consumption chain. They can result from several forms of environmental contamination including pollution in water, soil or air, as well as unsafe food storage and processing.

    Foodborne diseases encompass a wide range of illnesses from diarrhoea to cancers. Most present as gastrointestinal issues, though they can also produce neurological, gynaecological and immunological symptoms. Diseases causing diarrhoea are a major problem in all countries of the world, though the burden is carried disproportionately by low- and middle-income countries and by children under 5 years of age


    Every year, nearly one in 10 people around the world fall ill after eating contaminated food, leading to over 420 000 deaths. Children are disproportionately affected, with 125 000 deaths every year in people under 5 years of age. The majority of these cases are caused by diarrhoeal diseases. Other serious consequences of foodborne diseases include kidney and liver failure, brain and neural disorders, reactive arthritis, cancer, and death.

    Foodborne diseases are closely linked to poverty in low- and middle-income countries but are a growing public health issue around the world. Increasing international trade and longer, more complex food chains increase the risk of food contamination and the transport of infected food products across national borders. Growing cities, climate change, migration and growing international travel compound these issues and expose people to new hazards.

    WHO Response

    WHO works to assist Member States in building capacity to prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks. Foodborne diseases are reflected in several targets of Sustainable Developmental Goal 3 and are a priority area within the Organization’s work. Activities include research and independent scientific assessments of food-related hazards, foodborne disease awareness programs, and helping to promote food safety through national health-care programs. The WHO Five Keys to Safer Food manual provides straightforward tips and guidelines on how to produce, process, handle and consume food to limit spreading and contracting foodborne illnesses.

    In collaboration with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, WHO created the Codex Alimentarius, a nongovernmental interagency organization tasked with creating food standards, guidelines, and codes of practice that contributes to the safety, quality, and fairness of the international food trade. The two agencies also developed the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) to rapidly share information during food safety emergencies.


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