Friday 24 August 2012

Saving Nigerians from food poisoning

It is quite disturbing that over 200, 000 Nigerians die from food poisoning every year. Recent media reports credited to a professor of food science and technology, Alfred Ihenkuronye, indicated that these deaths were caused largely by foods contaminated through improper processing and preservation. Being an illness caused by the consumption of food or water contaminated by toxic chemicals, bacteria, parasites, or viruses, food poisoning can be prevented if Nigerians take the necessary precautionary measures.
Part of the problem is that urbanisation and westernisation have turned many Nigerians into consumers of processed foods, some of which are imported. Sometimes, these processed foods expire but because the importers would not want to lose their money, they tamper with the expiry dates and still push the items to the market. A number of times, regulatory bodies have had to destroy rotten and expired cartons of fish and poultry products meant for the Nigerian market. This is part of the protective measures that can be taken.
More troubling still, some of these food items are preserved with chemicals that are injurious to human health. We have had reports of people dying after eating beans or moin moin (a local delicacy prepared with beans). In August, last year, six family members died in Gombi Local Government Area of Adamawa State after eating moin moin prepared from suspected poisoned beans. Two years ago, many citizens of Bekwarra Local Government Area of Cross River State found themselves in the hospital after eating moin moin and beans. Two children were even said to have died from the incident. Also, in June this year, 26 people reportedly suffered from food poisoning at Yassharu village in Kafur Local Government Area of Katsina State.
Most times, the major problem is unhygienic handling of food. Some Nigerians shake hands with people, visit toilets and touch some objects that are highly contaminated. But they don’t wash their hands properly with soap when they want to handle food. This is more rampant in local restaurants. That way of life should be discouraged.
These cafes are also breeding grounds for flies, cockroaches and rodents like rats which are vectors of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea and Lassa fever. A report by the Federal Ministry of Health indicated that cholera killed about 5, 470 people out of 1,452,295 cases recorded between 2008 and 2010. Earlier in the year, many persons were affected by the very deadly Lassa fever across 12 states. And in the estimation of the World Health Organisation, between 300,000 and 500,000 cases of Lassa fever occur annually in parts of West Africa. Even developed countries are not immune to the scourge. A WHO report says 30 per cent of people living in industrialised countries may suffer from food-borne illnesses each year. In the United States, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne diseases cause about 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalisations, and 5,000 deaths each year. The annual cost of food-borne illnesses in the US alone is estimated to be between $7.7 billion and $23 billion.
To prevent food poisoning, which comes with symptoms such as vomiting, bloody stools, high fever, abdominal cramps and nausea, Nigerians should keep their kitchens clean at all times. They should not only fumigate their environment periodically, they should also dispose of refuse heaps as soon as possible. People should thoroughly wash knives and cutting boards used to cut raw meat before using them to cut fruits to avoid cross contamination. They should thoroughly wash fruits, vegetables, meat and fish with salt. Canned foods and drinks should be properly cleaned before consumption as rodents may have left some residues of droppings there.
The grim reports on food-borne diseases should serve as a wake-up call to our food regulatory agencies. There is the need to provide simple, easy-to-follow consumer information on the handling, storage and preparation of food. The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control must redouble its efforts to rid the country of food poisoning. This requires a real sense of urgency. A recent media report indicated that the agency destroyed expired food, drugs and drinks worth N1.089bn between January and July this year. Though this is commendable, there is a need to do more in the area of enlightenment. Nigerians need to know how to detect fake or expired products. At the local government levels, there should be produce inspection officers who should test samples of fruits and vegetables in the market. There should be health inspectors who should inspect restaurants to ensure safe and sanitary practices.
The water people drink should be well treated and the source monitored regularly. It is regrettable that only about 17.2 per cent of Nigerians, according to a report by the US State Department in 2010, have access to clean water. Some people depend on untreated boreholes and wells, some of which are dug close to septic tanks and other high pollutants. For some, sachet water is the only source of drinking water. Government should do its duty by providing potable water for the citizens.
People should also endeavour to cover food well. They should avoid eating expired food or leftovers that have stayed for up to four days. Foodstuffs, especially raw meat, poultry, dairy products like eggs and milk should be properly stored and cooked because they are highly vulnerable to contamination. Raw meat, poultry and fish should be stored in the deep freezer.
People suffering from food poisoning should drink plenty of fluids, eat food that can digest easily and rest very well. Serious cases should be referred to qualified medical personnel.

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