The health risk on hot days

Shishir Reza | Published: June 21, 2019 21:14:00

With mercury going high at this particular time of the year in Bangladesh, the spectre of heat-induced diseases is looming over the populace in the country. Incidents of ailments like diarrhoea, fever, jaundice and other diseases are increasing in lower and middle income households. The root of most summer diseases that affect people from all age ranges can be traced back to food poisoning.

Food poisoning is a common, usually mild, but sometimes deadly illness. Typical symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, and diarrhoea that occur suddenly (within 48 hours) after consuming a contaminated food or drink. Depending on the contaminant, fever and chills, bloody stools, dehydration, and sometimes even damages to the nervous system can follow.

Worldwide, diarrheal illnesses are among the leading causes of death. According to the findings of the 'Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study', in 2016 around 1.60 million people died across the world because of diarrhoea related illnesses. Most of the patients were children under five years of age. 

One of the most common bacterial forms of infection, the salmonellae organisms, account for $1 billion in medical costs and lost work time. According to a 2017 study by World Health Organisation, over 45,000 children under-five die every year in Bangladesh from diarrhoea caused by contaminated water.

CAUSES BEHIND FOOD POISONING: More than 250 known diseases can be transmitted through food. The known causes of food poisoning can be divided into two categories: infectious agents and toxic agents. Infectious agents include viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Toxic agents include poisonous mushrooms, improperly prepared exotic foods or pesticides on fruits and vegetables. Food usually becomes contaminated from poor sanitation or preparation. Food handlers who do not wash their hands after using the bathroom or have infections themselves often cause contamination. Improperly packaged food stored at wrong temperatures also promotes contamination. In Bangladesh, both of these factors lead to food poisoning.

FOOD POISONING SYMPTOMS: Symptoms of food poisoning depend on the type of contaminant and the amount eaten. The symptoms can develop rapidly, within 30 minutes, or slowly, worsening over days to weeks. Most of the common contaminants cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal cramping. Usually food poisoning is not serious, and the illness runs its course in 24-48 hours. In most cases the body is able to permanently recover after a short period of acute discomfort and illness. However, food borne illnesses can result in permanent health problems or even death, especially for those at high risk, including babies, young children, pregnant women (and their fetuses), elderly people, ailing and others with weak immune systems.

FOOD POISONING AS A RISK: From the perspective of disaster management, risk is defined when hazard interact with vulnerable areas, people, property and environment. When food poisoning breaks out in a specific area, then the residents of that area become affected by this food borne disease. This becomes a risk for the community.

 ASSESSMENT OF HAZARD CAUSED BY FOOD POISONING: Areas affected by food poisoning are likely to have the following traits: Geological condition of that area may have hot weather. Or it is likely to be a subtropical area or a low-lying region affected by frequent floods, scarcity of pure drinking water or fresh water. Often the post disaster situation of such areas cannot be kept under control. Such areas are perfect environments for the vector which cause these food borne diseases.

CAPACITY ASSESSMENT: Capacity indicates a combination of all the strengths and resources available within a community, society or organisation that can reduce the level of risk or the effects of a disaster. So this kind of assessment identifies the individual preventive capacity of the people of a community at any given time. It also identifies the capacity of the whole community with its institutional backgrounds.

VULNERABILITY AND CAPACITY: Vulnerability is the extent to which they can anticipate, cope with, respond to and recover from the impact of a disaster. It can also be defined as a set of conditions and processes resulting from physical, social, economical and environmental factors which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impact of hazard.

This is why people living in slums and villages are more likely to have diarrhoea caused by food poisoning. As they are poor, they do not have access to pure food. There is an absence of social stratification, lack of security, education, access to good governance and other factors that come into play.

PREVENTION: Sports drinks such as Gatorade and PowerAde are fine for adults if they are diluted with water because at full strength they contain too much sugar, which can worsen diarrhoea symptoms. Most food poisoning does not require the use of over-the-counter medicines to stop diarrhoea, but they are generally safe if used as directed. It is not recommended that these medications be given to children. If there is a question or concern, you should always check with a doctor.

NON-STRUCTURAL PREVENTION: This includes, Safe shopping. Shoppers should never choose torn or leaking packages of food items or bottles with drinks. While buying packaged items, shoppers should always check the expiration dates, inquire if the food was safely stored and how these were prepared and more.

Before cooking or preparing a dish, the people involved in the process should always wash their hands before and after handling raw meat and poultry. Frozen food should be thawed properly before these are heated in the oven or on a stove.

Also, food should never be left out in the open for more than two hours (or more than an hour in temperatures above 90°F). This is because bacteria that cause food poisoning grow rapidly at room temperature.

Shishir Reza is an environmental analyst & Associate Member, Bangladesh Economic Association.

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