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Meal maladies

How "dirty food" can impact your health

By Gwen Reyes-Amurao, M.D.


Street food showcases the taste and richness of one’s native culture, but it can also contain millions of disease-causing bacteria. Because of the gastrointestinal system’s role in immunity, doctors stress the importance of eating not only the right kind of food, but food that is also prepared well.

A malaise-filled menu

According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illnesses result in more than 100,000 hospitalizations yearly and more than one million deaths in children less than 5 years of age, most of which occurs in third-world countries like ours. Here’s a look at some common meal maladies—and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Typhoid fever is an acute infection caused by Salmonella. Through contaminated food or water, the bacteria enters the gastrointestinal tract, and the bloodstream in severe cases, before spreading to other organs of the body. The hallmark of typhoid fever is prolonged, persistent and escalating fever. Associated symptoms include headache, generalized body weakness and chills. A characteristic rash known as “rose spots” appear during the early stages of infection. Intestinal symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal pain, sometimes even bloody stools. Left untreated, it can persist for weeks and lead to involvement of the liver, kidney, heart, lungs, joints and brain.

Hepatitis A is transmitted through the fecal-oral route. It is contracted when a person consumes food or water contaminated by virus-laden stools, or comes in contact with objects or food touched by an infected person who didn’t wash his hands after bathroom use. Poor personal hygiene and overcrowding encourage the spread of the disease. Characteristic manifestations include easy fatigability, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea and vomiting, abdominal discomfort and enlargement, dark-colored urine, and yellow-tinged eyeballs and skin.

In food poisoning, harmful bacteria—including Vibrio cholera, E. coli, Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, and the Salmonella species—cause gastrointestinal illness and dehydration. Most cases of bacterial food poisoning are due to food contamination from infected human carriers, or ingestion of bacteria from raw and improperly prepared or handled food. They cause an array of symptoms: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Many cases of food poisoning resolve on their own with time, requiring supportive care and adequate rehydration to prevent severe dehydration—which, together with fever and bloody stools, requires medical attention. Self-medication without a physician’s supervision can be dangerous.

Botulism is a paralytic disease that affects the nerves and extremities. It’s caused by neurotoxins made by Clostridium botulinum, usually ingested from improperly-handled canned and preserved goods contaminated with spores, and from food not heated thoroughly enough to destroy the toxin. Symptoms often appear 18 to 36 hours after ingestion, and include paralysis or weakness on one side of the body. Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain may precede or follow the onset of paralysis.

Amoebiasis is an infection from the protozoa Entamoeba hystolytica. Infection starts with ingestion of entamoeba cysts from feces-contaminated water, food or hands. When a food handler or any infected person who touches food is actively shedding cysts, or food is grown with feces-contaminated soil, fertilizer or water, infection becomes imminent, manifesting symptoms like lower abdominal pain, mild diarrhea, generalized body weakness, weight loss and then later on, diffuse lower abdominal or back pain. Patients with severe diarrhea may pass 10 to 12 stools per day and may consist mostly of blood and mucus. In children, severe abdominal pain, high fever and profuse diarrhea can occur.

Fish and shellfish poisoning can be either due to toxins produced by dinoflagellates, found in mollusks associated with “red tide,” or tetrodotoxin from the gallbladder of the improperly prepared puffer fish. The former can cause numbing of the mouth and extremities, headache, loss of voluntary muscle control or muscle paralysis, and vertigo. The latter can be fatal, since it induces respiratory failure and decreases blood pressure and heart rate. In severe cases, red tide poisoning can lead to respiratory failure, accounting for an eight to nine percent mortality rate, while deaths due to tetrodotoxin poisoning are at 59 percent.

Find out what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from meal maladies. Get a copy of the October issue of HealthToday from bookstores and newsstands.

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