More than just a bad bout of stomach flu, some food-borne illnesses can cause long-term consequences, especially for young people, a report released on Thursday has found.
Researchers at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention in Pennsylvania studied the five most common food-borne diseases and found they can cause life-long complications including kidney failure, paralysis, seizures, hearing or visual impairments and mental retardation.
"It's not just a tummy ache," the center's Tanya Roberts told a news briefing.
An estimated 76 million Americans become sick each year from food-borne illness, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half are children under 15.
Since 2006, outbreaks have been linked to peanuts, peppers, ground beef, spinach and other common foods.
Diarrhea and vomiting are the most common symptoms of food-borne illness, and typically last only a few days.
But in 2 to 3 percent of cases, food-borne disease can cause serious long-term health problems, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
For the report, the team studied campylobacter infection, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Toxoplasma gondii.
In addition to diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting, campylobacter infection can cause Guillain-Barre syndrome, the most common cause of paralysis in the United States. It can also trigger arthritis, heart infections, and blood infections.
E. coli O157:H7 infection can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, the leading cause of acute kidney failure in children in the United States.
Listeria has been linked with infections of the brain and spinal cord, resulting in serious neurological dysfunctions or death. It kills about 1 in 5 people.
Salmonella bacteria can cause reactive arthritis, a painful form of arthritis that can interfere with work and quality of life.
And infants whose mothers were infected with toxoplamosis, caused by a food-borne parasite, can develop mental retardation, crossed-eyes and in some cases blindness in one or both eyes.
"It's not just these five," Roberts said. "There's over 200 pathogens that have different kinds of consequences and these consequences can be prevented," she said.
Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Program at the nonprofit Pew Health Group, said she hopes the report will prompt action on legislation pending in Congress to reform food safety in the United States.
"We started 2009 with a major food-borne illness outbreak linked to peanut butter and peanut butter products. It ultimately resulted in nine deaths and sickened more than 700 people in 46 states," Eskin said. "Families should not have to wait another year for safer food."