New CLF survey on the unawareness of Canadians in contracting food-related illnesses

New Canadian Liver Foundation poll finds Canadians concerned about food- related illnesses, yet majority are not taking proper steps to avoid them

Whether it's through fresh foods, a food handler at a grocery store, or even a local restaurant, you can unknowingly pick up unwanted viruses right here in Canada. A new survey from the Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) reveals more than half of Canadians over the age of 25 (57 per cent) are concerned about contracting food-related illnesses like hepatitis A, but many are unaware that their everyday food preparation and consumption habits may put them at risk for this liver disease.

It is a common misconception among the public that hepatitis A and B are just travellers' diseases. Canadians are nearly twice as likely to recognize they could be exposed to hepatitis A when eating on holiday (65 per cent), versus only 35 per cent who recognize this same risk here in Canada. As we head into the winter months, locally grown food is less available and we rely even more on fresh foods imported from around the world. In the winter months Canadian imports of fresh produce nearly double, and some foods may hail from areas where hepatitis A is endemic or where sanitation practices may not be up to Canadian standards. In fact, 84 per cent of hepatitis A cases in Canada are not directly linked to travel.

"Hepatitis A and B are global liver diseases, and know no borders. While many may consider hepatitis A and B to be travel diseases, it is important to recognize that it can affect you right here at home," says Dr. Morris Sherman, Chairman of the Canadian Liver Foundation. "While the risks may be lower in Canada versus other parts of the world, there are still risks, and it is key to know what they are and how to help protect yourself."

Canadians mistakenly believe common myths about the risks for contracting food-related illnesses and may have a false sense of security about their foods' safety. Almost two-thirds of Canadians (63 per cent) incorrectly believe going to a "reputable" restaurant means they are safe from food-related illnesses. A further 58 per cent think that visiting a "reputable" grocery store would be enough to help them avoid a food-related illness.

Knowing the risks

There are several ways in which food can become contaminated.

- From a food service worker: Hepatitis A virus can be passed along by infected food service workers in a restaurant or grocery store, or by those who handle produce along the supply chain. You may be at risk when a food service worker with hepatitis A fails to wash his or her hands properly after going to the bathroom and then touches the food you eat. - From the food itself: Contamination can occur during irrigation, harvesting, sorting, shipping, or processing.(iv) Food can be grown in or washed with contaminated water from areas with poor sanitation standards. For example, green onions, lettuce or strawberries have been the source of hepatitis A outbreaks in the past.

"Whether you're getting your food from a big grocery chain, a local market or a five star restaurant, you have no idea how the food was grown, where it was processed or even how many people touched it along the way," says Dr. Sherman. "If an infected worker is not doing a good job of washing his or her hands before touching your food, or the food was grown in contaminated soil, you could be at risk of contracting hepatitis A."

Here are some general food safety tips on how to properly wash fresh fruits and vegetables:

- Always wash your hands before preparing food and after going to the washroom - Soak all fruits and vegetables for one to two minutes in clean, fresh water - Clean your countertop, cutting boards and utensils with hot, soapy water after each use - Don't forget that pre-packaged or frozen fruits and vegetables should also be well washed

Getting Protected

More than half of Canadians (51 per cent) believe they are safe from food-related illnesses as long as they wash their food before eating it. While proper hygiene and food handling can help protect against one of the risk factors for contracting hepatitis A, getting vaccinated is the best way to help protect yourself against both the known, and more importantly, the unknown and uncontrollable risks for exposure to this form of viral hepatitis. Only one in three Canadians (35 per cent) believe they are vaccinated for hepatitis A.

Hepatitis A, however, is not the only vaccine-preventable form of viral hepatitis Canadians can contract at home. Hepatitis B is spread through direct contact with blood or bodily fluids. Risk factors include: having unprotected sex, getting a tattoo or piercing, and getting a pedicure, dental or medical procedure where inadequately sterilized instruments are used. Just over a third of Canadians (37 per cent) believe they are vaccinated against hepatitis B.

"Canadians should consider getting vaccinated against both hepatitis A and B to reduce the risk of contracting these liver diseases here at home," says Dr. Sherman. "Children in Canada are now vaccinated for hepatitis B in grade school, so it just makes sense for adults to consider vaccination as an effective way to help protect themselves as well."




The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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