EFSA, ECDC report shows surge in zoonotic diseases and foodborne outbreaks

EUROPE – The EU’s One Health zoonosis report published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control  (ECDC) has revealed an increase in reported cases of zoonotic diseases and foodborne outbreaks in 2021 compared to the previous year.

However, according to the report, the levels are still much below those of the pre-pandemic years.

The COVID-19 control measures, which were still in effect in 2021, are likely responsible for the overall decline in reported cases and outbreaks compared to pre-pandemic years.

The number of yersiniosis cases and foodborne listeriosis outbreaks, which went above pre-pandemic levels, are two of the few exceptions.

Salmonella was the leading cause of foodborne outbreaks, making up 19.3% (773) of the total.

Foodborne outbreaks are instances where at least two people get sick from the same contaminated food, as opposed to generally reported disease cases.

Eggs, egg products, and “mixed foods,” or meals made up of multiple items, were the most frequent causes of salmonellosis outbreaks.

The number of outbreaks caused by Listeria monocytogenes (23) was the highest ever recorded. This may be related to the rising use of whole genome sequencing methods, which enables researchers to more accurately identify and characterize outbreaks.

Zoonotic diseases

The report also contains all zoonotic disease cases that have been documented, which are not always associated with outbreaks.

Zoonoses are infectious diseases that are transmitted between animals and humans and are caused by harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.

People may be infected by zoonotic microorganisms through direct contact with infected animals, indirect contact with the environment, and objects (fomites) or surfaces that have been contaminated by zoonotic agents.

Other sources of infection include contact with, or bites from, arthropod vectors (vector-borne diseases) or consumption of foodstuffs, including water, contaminated by zoonotic agents (foodborne and waterborne diseases).

The most often reported zoonotic disease is still campylobacteriosis, with 127,840 cases recorded in 2021 as opposed to 120,946 in 2020.

The most popular type of meat was that from chickens and turkeys, as shown in the report.

In contrast to 52,702 in 2020, salmonellosis was the second-most commonly reported zoonotic disease, affecting 60,050 individuals.

One of the most efficient strategies to lessen the burden of human illness is to control the prevalence of zoonotic microorganisms in food-producing animals.

In poultry populations (breeding hens, laying hens, broilers, and fattening and breeding turkeys), national Salmonella control programs have been in place for a number of years.

These programs aim to lower the prevalence of the Salmonella serovars—subgroups with shared distinctive surface structures—that account for the vast majority of human cases.

The reduction in Salmonella prevalence for the pertinent serovars in particular poultry populations was one of the specified aims for 2021, and it was accomplished by 16 Member States and the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland).

For the specified poultry populations, trends in the prevalence of flocks harboring the Salmonella target serovar have remained comparatively steady in the EU in recent years.

A relatively small percentage (0.23%) of Salmonella-positive units were discovered for 2021 in the category of “ready-to-eat” food samples, with the greatest percentages of positive samples being reported for “meat and meat products from pigs” (0.82%) and “spices and herbs” (0.72%).

Listeria (6,084 cases), yersiniosis (6,789 cases), and infections caused by E. coli that produce shigatoxin were the most frequently reported illnesses (2,183 cases).

Yersiniosis, an illness caused by Y. enterocolitica (or Y. pseudotuberculosis) and typically linked to consuming undercooked pork or vegetables, was the third most frequently reported zoonosis in humans in 2021.

In terms of reported instances, Yersinia infection was followed by listeriosis brought on by L. monocytogenes and infections with Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC).

Both agents have the potential to cause serious and even deadly foodborne infections, particularly in high-risk population segments like the elderly, children, pregnant women, and immunocompromised people.

In 2021, West Nile virus and L. monocytogenes infections caused the highest rates of hospitalizations and fatalities among infected individuals, making them the two most serious zoonoses.

Data on “ready-to-eat” (RTE) foods show that L. monocytogenes contamination, when present, typically remained within the authorized limits.

Every year, the ECDC and EFSA collect data from the EU Member States and other European countries on zoonotic diseases.

They then conduct an analysis of the information gathered and create an annual report outlining the trends for zoonotic agents in humans, food, and animals as well as their incidence in various sources.

These assessments aim to offer information to policy makers and veterinary and food safety agencies that can be used to plan activities to lessen the burden of disease caused by zoonotic infections and, eventually, the number of human cases.

These data are gathered, examined, and interpreted using a “One Health” approach that integrates human, animal, and environmental health.

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