Half a million people die of foodborne illness each year: WHO report

Some type of food poisoning sickened close to one tenth of the world population, or nearly 600 million people, with nearly half a million (420,000) dying as a result, according to a report.

Tragically, one third of the dead were children under the age of five, says the report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday.

In what is said to be the first global estimate of its kind, the report details the global toll on human health that foodborne illnesses inflicted annually.

"Until now, estimates of foodborne diseases were vague and imprecise. This concealed the true human costs of contaminated food. This report sets the record straight," said Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, in a statement. "Knowing which foodborne pathogens are causing the biggest problems in which parts of the world can generate targeted action by the public, governments, and the food industry."

The authors studied 31 different agents known to cause illness when taken with food, ranging from the biological (bacteria, viruses, and other parasites) to the environmental (chemicals). The researchers further divided agents into diseases that primarily caused severe diarrhea (diarrhoeal) or did not, with 11 agents belonging to the former category. Additionally, calculating the sheer number of people who took ill or died due to stomach bugs in 2010, they also determined their burden on people's overall health and productivity via a measure called the Disability Adjusted Life Year, or DALY.

The highest number of cases and deaths occurred among the poor in developing countries, but deadly outbreaks had been reported from the US and Europe too, said University of Florida expert Dr Arie Hendrik Havelaar, Reuters reported. "Our results show that the biggest burden is in Africa and in southeast Asia, and there the death rates are highest, including those of children under five years of age," said Havelaar, who chaired the WHO group of 150 scientists that carried out the research for the report.

In Africa, salmonella, the pork tapeworm, caused the most deaths, while cyanide in cassava and aflatoxin, a chemical produced by moulds that grew on improperly stored grains or corn also caused human death. According to the WHO, governments need to invest more in training food producers, suppliers and the public.