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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 11:45 GMT
Faster detection of food poisoning
E. coli
E. coli outbreaks can cause serious illness
A more effective method of detecting food poisoning and water borne disease is being developed by scientists.

The new technology may help experts to trace outbreaks of disease more swiftly and to intervene to minimise the number of people who become infected.

It could also provide a way to track potential clusters of disease electronically.

The work is being carried out by the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) in harness with the Universities of Southampton and Lancaster backed by funding from the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

A pilot project to test the new system will be launched in the Wessex area. It is known as project AEGISS (Ascertainment and Enhancement of Gastro-Intestinal Surveillance and Statistics).

The aim of project AEGISS is to reduce the time of detection of a problem right down to about 72 hours

Dr Peter Hawtin, Public Health Laboratory Service
Under current surveillance, many outbreaks of food poisoning are identified and their sources traced.

Some virulent bugs like E. coli O157 are already well tracked nationally.

However, it is widely accepted that there is a significant degree of under-reporting of certain infections, especially viral gut infections.

Dr Peter Hawtin of the PHLS, said: "One of the major difficulties in the investigation of food poisoning and in water borne disease is establishing the risk factors rapidly.

"It is so difficult to remember what you ate maybe 10 or 15 days ago.

"The aim of project AEGISS is to reduce the time of detection of a problem right down to about 72 hours which gives the authorities a much greater chance of intervening as early as possible in an emerging outbreak to prevent further cases in the community."

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes in recent years have made identifying sources of food poisoning much harder.

People are eating out more than ever before - two billion meals a year and rising - and fewer meals are home-cooked.

Under Project AEGISS, whenever a patient with either diarrhoea or vomiting sees a doctor, the surgery will complete a form giving basic information about the patient, when the illness started and an indication of recent travel.

Electronic reporting via NHSnet is under development to further simplify and speed up this process.

The patient will also be asked to fill in a simple risk factor questionnaire to find out information such as what they have eaten and drunk over the previous week.

The information will be fed to experts at Southampton University, who will map all the reports of diarrhoea and vomiting that occur each day in the Wessex area.

Lancaster University will then use a state-of-the-art statistical system to identify which cases are related to quickly identify potential clusters.

Dr Trevor Bryant, chair of Medical Computing at Southampton University, said: "By collecting the information in a more consistent way, we will be able to analyse it rapidly and begin to detect emerging problems within 72 hours and alert the health authorities.

"The information can also be linked with other electronic data such as socio-economic factors and maps detailing water mains and sewerage outlets.

"The whole idea is to catch as many cases as possible; to get better information and to get it much earlier than at present"

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19 Jul 00 | Health
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