Tag Archives: outbreaks

Research: Finesse, transparency key when reporting foodborne illness outbreaks

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: NIH Image Gallery via FlickrSalmonella bacteria invade an immune cell.

A mainstay of health reporting is covering outbreaks of foodborne illness, whether it’s salmonella in peanut butter (and its criminal consequences) or listeria in cantaloupes or ice cream. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a robust site documenting food-borne illness outbreaks, by the time the CDC cites a case on its website, the outbreak often already been in the news since potential outbreaks are first investigated by local and state health departments.

How do these smaller agencies decide how and when to publicize details about a suspected or confirmed outbreak? Continue reading

Project follows the race to make bagged salad safer

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The latest investigation by California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting’s Deborah Schoch will make you think twice before ripping into a sack of spring mix, but her work about the myriad food safety challenges posed by bagged salads examines the industry’s struggle to develop technology powerful enough to overcome the existential threat posed by E. coli and friends.

The industry has made great strides since a 2006 outbreak linked to tainted spinach, she writes, but “It’s impossible to stop all pathogens from landing on lettuce and spinach leaves.” And once they’re on the leaves, it seems as if their spread is almost inevitable. They hide in gooey biofilms and resist powerful washes.

Thousands upon thousands of salad leaves are taken to a central plant, washed together, bagged and shipped. Even if only a few leaves are tainted, harmful pathogens can spread in the wash water — the modern salad version of the old adage that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.

“I would think of it as swimming in a swimming pool in Las Vegas with a thousand people I didn’t know,” said William Marler, a prominent Seattle-based food safety attorney.

Plenty of public and industry money has been aimed at the problem, Schoch writes. “The Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis, founded in response to the spinach outbreak as an industry-public partnership, has pumped more than $9 million into 54 research projects at 18 universities.”

Even the best research can’t reduce the risk of contaminated greens by 100%, scientists said. At Earthbound, Daniels says the ultimate goal is to achieve what scientists call a “5 log reduction,” the equivalent of pasteurizing milk. In short, if an unwashed lettuce contained 100,000 pathogens, the perfect wash system would knock off five “0s” and reduce the pathogen count to 1.

An added bonus? Schoch’s column on whether she (and the experts she talked to) feel like it’s important, or even salutary, to wash their bagged greens.

Refusal to vaccinate puts others at risk

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The Marin Independent Journal‘s Rob Rogers, reporting from a county where an above-average number of parents ask to exempt their children from vaccinations, finds that a sizable group of unvaccinated children can put the whole community at risk.

“Vaccines are very effective, but there is a small failure rate,” said Dr. Rob Schechter, chief of immunization at the state Department of Public Health. “When the whole population is highly immunized, the few vulnerable children are protected by the immunity of the community. But when there is a high rate of exemptions, diseases can spread even to people who are immunized.”

The effects of this high rate of exemptions, many of which are requested by younger parents who may not be familiar with the consequences of vaccine prevented diseases, are starting to show.

An outbreak of chicken pox affected more than 40 students at the Lagunitas and San Geronimo Valley elementary schools in 2007, where 17 and 57 percent of students had received personal belief exemptions from vaccination. In addition, the Lagunitas School District excluded about 70 students from the two schools for three weeks out of concern that they were at high risk of contagion. Many of them had never been vaccinated.

Rogers quotes sources on both sides of the vaccine debate, including public health professionals, parents and a chiropractor who said “Vaccination is based on the medical fallacy that our bodies are stupid … The truth is that the body has a nearly infinite capacity to protect itself against infection as well as other diseases. When I was a kid, everybody got measles, mumps or chicken pox, and nobody died.”

A panel of experts will be discussing this very topic at Health Journalism 2009 this week.