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Food poisoning strikes 1 in 4 Americans each year

ATLANTA — Next time you have a case of diarrhea that lasts a day or more, chances are better than 1 in 3 that it was food poisoning.

As many as a quarter of Americans suffer a foodborne illness each year — though only a fraction of those cases get linked to high-profile outbreaks like the recent salmonella-peanut scare, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists have counted more than 250 food-related types of illness — from viruses to bacteria to parasites. Most common are Norwalk-like viruses — famous for sickening cruise ship passengers. They account for about two-thirds of known food-poisoning cases, according to the CDC.

Two types of bacteria, campylobacter and salmonella, are the next most common. Campylobacter is blamed for about 14 percent of food poisonings, salmonella for roughly 10 percent.

The exact toll of these and other bugs is not known.

Ten years ago, a team of CDC scientists put together the best enduring estimate of how many Americans get food poisoning each year: 76 million illnesses, which resulted in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

No more recent figures are available.

The statistics seem even more alarming in the context of a parade of high-profile food-poisoning outbreaks in recent years: salmonella poisoning linked to hot peppers and tomatoes from Mexico that sickened more 1,400 last year; an E. coli outbreak from bagged spinach in 2006; and even deadly cases of hepatitis A from green onions in 2003.

The recent peanut-related salmonella outbreak has caused more than 640 confirmed illnesses in 44 states and been linked to nine deaths.

Those numbers just scratch the surface: A case is confirmed only after a lab test is sent to the CDC. Many sick people just soldier on without even seeing a doctor.

Food poisoning strikes 1 in 4 Americans each year 02/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 10:00pm]
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