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Complaints of Foodborne Illness in San Francisco, California, 1998

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Foodborne diseases are an important public problem affecting millions of Americans each year and resulting in substantial morbidity and mortality. Many foodborne infections occur in outbreak settings. Outbreaks are often detected by complaints from the public to health authorities. This report reviews complaints received by the San Francisco Department of Public Health involving suspected foodborne illness in 1998. Although such foodborne complaints are commonly received by health officials, we provide the first review of population-based data describing such complaints. We use a broad definition of a foodborne disease outbreak. We judged a complaint to be a "likely foodborne disease outbreak" if it involved more than one person and more than one family; no other common meals were shared recently by ill persons; diarrhea, vomiting, or both was reported; and the incubation period was more than one hour. In 1998, 326 complaints of foodborne illness, involving a total of 599 ill people, were received by the Communicable Disease Control Unit in San Francisco. The complaints involved from 1 to 36 ill persons, with 61% involving one ill person and 25% involving two ill persons. Of the 126 reports involving illness in more than one person, 77 (61%) were judged to be likely foodborne disease outbreaks. Three of these 77 outbreaks had been investigated prior to our review. This project confirms that more foodborne disease outbreaks occur than are reported to state and national outbreak surveillance systems. Our review of the San Francisco system highlights opportunities for gleaning valuable information from the foodborne disease complaint systems in place in most jurisdictions.


Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: California Emerging Infections Program, 1212 Broadway, 12th Floor, Oakland, California 94612, USA 2: San Francisco Department of Public Health, San Francisco, California 94102, USA 3: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia 30333, USA 4: California Emerging Infections Program, 1212 Broadway, 12th Floor, Oakland, California 94612, and California Department of Health Services, Berkeley, California 94704, USA

Publication date: August 1, 2001

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