What lies beneath your Christmas dinner?
Christmas dinner is often considered one of the best meals of the year, and something that many people are looking forward to. However, whilst it may be tempting to enjoy the leftovers after returning from an afternoon down at the beach, a hidden danger lurks. We speak to Dr Sally Appleton, Clinical Microbiologist at QML Pathology to find out why we need to be careful this festive season.
“Precautions should start long before even sitting down at the table, especially as summer temperatures start to rise. Most importantly, people need to ensure they wash their hands often when preparing food, and to make sure that they separate any items they are planning to cook, such as raw meats and eggs, from foods that will not be cooked such as salads and fresh fruit.
“The most common food-borne illnesses we see in Australia are infections from bacteria including Campylobacter and Salmonella, as well as viral infections such as Norovirus. Less commonly we see people become ill with Shigella, Listeria, and Shiga-Toxigenic E. coli, which are all bacterial infections, or hepatitis A viral infection. People may become unwell with gastro, when they have vomiting or diarrhoea, although some people may have more vague symptoms such as fever, headaches and lethargy. Not all people exposed to a pathogen will develop symptoms,” said Dr Appleton.
Campylobacter is most commonly found in raw chicken whilst Salmonella infections are often associated with raw eggs and raw chicken. Both can be transmitted if these raw foods are not cooked properly, or if they come into contact with items which are not then cooked, such as salad or fruit. Foods which have been left out for a long time at room temperature, particularly in an Australian summer, may also not be safe for eating. It is essential that any leftovers are refrigerated within 2 hours of cooking.
Many pathogens associated with food-borne illnesses are "notifiable”, meaning that a laboratory is required to tell the public health units when an infection has been detected. Due to this, we know that there have been more than 33,000 people infected with Campylobacter in Australia this year, and more than 13,000 people who had Salmonella infections. These numbers, however, only include people who were tested in a laboratory able to identify the cause of their gastroenteritis, so the number of people affected would be higher.
“Whilst many foodborne illnesses are quite unpleasant, most people will recover quickly. In some cases, however, people can become very unwell and may need to be admitted to hospital to receive fluids to rehydrate them. If the infection is severe, they may need antibiotics. This is particularly seen in very young children, in the elderly or in immunosuppressed people whose bodies are less able to cope with illness. Pregnancy can additionally place women, their unborn children, and their newborns at increased risk of complications from foodborne illness, as organisms such as Listeria can spread to the baby through the placenta,” said Dr Appleton.
“If you feel very unwell then it is always good to seek medical attention. Children and the elderly should seek help early, especially if they have been unable to drink any fluids, as they can become very unwell quickly. If someone has a high fever and is very confused or very sleepy then they need to seek urgent medical help,” said Dr Appleton.
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This article appeared in the December 2019 Edition of ePathWay which is an online magazine produced by the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (http://www.rcpa.edu.au/Library/Publications/ePathway).
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