Telephone.jpgWhen it comes to efficient and effective outbreak detection, it is well understood that local and state health departments rely on the complaints of the public.  In conjunction with culture-confirmed lab test notification, public complaints make health departments aware of possible foodborne illnesses emerging within a given community.  Until recently, however, the strength of the correlation between public complaints and effective outbreak detection was unknown.  Seeking to answer this question, researchers John Li, Gulzar H. Shah, and Craig Hedberg have conducted a study, being published in the latest issue of the Journal of Food Protection, Vol. 74, No. 3, 2011, titled “Complaint-Based Surveillance for Foodborne Illness in the United States: A Survey of Local Health Departments.”

This study evaluates the use of these surveillance systems by local health departments (LHDs) in the United States and their practices and policies for investigating complaints. Data for this study were collected through two Web-based surveys based on a representative sample of LHDs in the United States; 81% of LHDs use complaint-based surveillance. Of those that did not have a complaint system, 64% reported that the state health department or another agency ran their complaint system. Health departments collect a wide variety of information from callers through their complaint systems, including food intake history.

After analyzing outbreak detection rates and comparing them with public complaints of foodborne illnesses, the authors found a positive correlation.

Outbreak rates and complaint rates were found to be positively correlated, with a Pearson’s correlation coefficient of 0.38. Complaints were the most common outbreak detection mechanism reported by respondents, with a median of 69% of outbreaks during the previous year found through complaints. Complaint systems are commonly used in the United States.

Public HealthSo what does this study mean for the public?  If you suspect or are culture-confirmed through lab testing to be infected with a foodborne illness, don’t wait–call your local health department immediately.  Health departments will only be made aware of a potential public health risk of a foodborne illness outbreak if the public makes them aware.

Here is the link to HEALTH DEPARTMENTS.