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Egypt’s Foodborne Disease Challenge on World Food Safety Day

June 7, 2024

World Food Safety Day on June 7 highlights and draws attention to the importance of preventing, detecting, and managing foodborne disease risks to preserve human health through access to safe and clean food – an area where Egypt faces challenges.

Around 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses are reported annually worldwide, and 420,000 people die yearly as a result of consuming contaminated food, with 40 percent of the infected being children under five years old, according to The World Health Organization (WHO). 

WHO classifies Egypt as having an intermediate to high prevalence of various enteric viruses, which infect the gastrointestinal (digestive) tract and are the main cause of foodborne illnesses and outbreaks.

Foodborne illnesses, often caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals in contaminated food or water, can range from mild discomfort to severe, life-threatening conditions, posing a major public health threat to both developed and developing countries. 

The Egyptian population suffers from high rates of infections such as hepatitis A (HAV), hepatitis E virus (HEV), human rotaviruses, noroviruses, astroviruses, and Salmonella, all of which can be transmitted through food.

HAV and HEV are the primary viral hepatitis culprits in Egypt, with over 50 percent of the population typically exposed to HAV by age 15, according to a 2021 study. On the other hand, salmonella was detected in 10.37 percent of broiler flocks across three Egyptian governorates, posing a potential risk to poultry consumers.

Most of these diseases have specific symptoms, making it easier to seek treatment, but the risk of contracting bacteria and foodborne illnesses is higher for those who do not pay attention to food hygiene. Consuming raw, undercooked, and pre-prepared foods is particularly implicated in causing digestive problems. Eating at fast-food restaurants also increases the risk if hygiene is an issue. 

Egypt’s Water Research and Pollution Control Department reported in 2002 that Egypt, like most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, has a dry or partially dry climate, with little to no rainfall. 

The reuse of marginal secondarily treated wastewater for irrigation has been adopted for many years to increase the utilization rate of water, according to a 2006 case study in Egypt. This practice raises the risk of waterborne viral contamination of agricultural products, making sewage-contaminated water a major foodborne disease risk factor.

Ninety percent of Egypt’s rural population lacks access to sewer systems or wastewater treatment, relying instead on on-site disposal methods like septic tanks instead of sewer systems, as reported by the Egyptian Water Research and Pollution Control Department.

Septic tanks collect and digest organic matter and solids, allowing wastewater to flow out into a drain field for further treatment and absorption into the soil. This often leads to shallow groundwater pollution, making the basic treatment of sewage ineffective, leading to the pollution of important waterways.

Additionally, the treated sewage sludge, often used as organic fertilizer in farms for planting vegetables and fruits, had large quantities of enteric viruses detected in it, according to a study by the National Research Center in 2019.

Bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever are reported as the most common foodborne and waterborne diseases in Egypt, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, classifying the country as having an “intermediate” risk of major infectious diseases.

Despite the challenges Egypt faces, still a few studies and surveillance systems exist on viral contaminants in Egyptian foods, making it difficult to assess their safety.  However, to mitigate the risks posed by bacteria and foodborne illnesses, primary care during food consumption and handling is essential to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Ensuring the cleanliness of food, avoiding eating from unknown places, and thoroughly cooking any questionable food items are fundamental steps. Additionally, consuming fruits and vegetables only after properly washing them with water, maintaining adequate hydration, and upholding a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise can collectively contribute to overall health and well-being.

Foodborne diseases pose a significant global health challenge, and hygiene and awareness can play paramount roles in preventing their spread. On World Food Safety Day, a commitment to following these practices ensures safe food for all, promoting health and prosperity worldwide.

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