Calculating the real burden of disease

There is a big difference between the number of people who get sick from something they have eaten and the number that is recorded in the official statistics. 

The reason may for example be that the sick person does not go to see a doctor, that the doctor doesn’t take a sample to determine the cause of the illness, or that the lab is not able to pinpoint what caused the illness from the sample. It may also be that symptoms appear only long after the food is eaten, such as cancer, neurological diseases or other conditions caused by exposure to chemicals in foods.

Therefore a connection is not made between the illness and the food that caused it.

However, accurate knowledge about the actual number of foodborne disease cases is important for authorities to best decide where to intervene to ensure that consumers have access to safe foods and that as few people as possible be

come sick from the food they eat. For this purpose, researchers at the National Food Institute are working to estimate the true burden of foodborne diseases by producing data that can correct for underreporting and underdiagnosis.

So-called burden of disease estimates make it possible to compare the burden of different foodborne diseases. Researchers work out the burden of different foodborne diseases by estimating the public health impact of these diseases in the population, taking into account the severity and duration of each disease.

Disease burden is reported in DALYs, which stands for disability adjusted life years – a measure of how many years of life a population loses when people have to live with a reduced quality of life and/or die earlier than expected due to disease (in this case foodborne infections).

Helping to produce global figures

The World Health Organization, WHO, has worked for a decade to reveal the true burden of foodborne disease on a global scale. WHO figures show that one in 10 people get sick each year from food they eat and of these, 420.000 end up dying.

Researchers from the National Food Institute have contributed to the work of the WHO as part of an international research team that has calculated the number of cases of disease and deaths caused by nine bacteria, viruses and parasites, which are commonly transmitted through food and typically cause diarrhea. 

The institute’s researchers have also led a global study to estimate what proportion of these diseases is directly linked to food consumption.

Read more

The National Food Institute’s work to estimate the actual burden of foodborne disease is described in further detail in an article in the publication Pan European Networks Science & Technology: Foodborne diseases: under-reported?

You can also read about the institute’s work to rank three foodborne bacteria according to the burden they impose on society as a whole in a news item from 13 November 2014: The real disease burden of foodborne infections

Read more about the institute’s role in working out the global burden of disease estimates and source attribution in two scientific articles in the journal PLOS One: 

Aetiology-Specific Estimates of the Global and Regional Incidence and Mortality of Diarrhoeal Diseases Commonly Transmitted through Food.

World Health Organization Estimates of the Relative Contributions of Food to the Burden of Disease Due to Selected Foodborne Hazards: A Structured Expert Elicitation.