Lancaster University

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New Technology to Crack Down on Food Poisoning Outbreaks

02/07/2001 16:51:30

Lancaster University, the Southampton Public Health Laboratory Service and the University of Southampton, are working together with primary care and the public health authorities to pioneer a system which uses new technology to improve the detection of food poisoning and water borne disease and to track electronically potential clusters of these diseases.

The groundbreaking work, funded by the Food Standards Agency, could become the national system for the notification and monitoring for potentially fatal diseases such as E-coli 0157, Salmonella and Cryptosporidium.

The project is called AEGISS (Ascertainment and Enhancement of Gastro-Intestinal Surveillance and Statistics) and will be carried out in the Wessex region. Under project AEGISS, whenever a patient with either diarrhoea or vomiting sees a doctor, the surgery will complete a form giving the patient's identity, postcode, 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.

When this information is received all the reports of diarrhoea and vomiting that occur each day in the Wessex area will be mapped. Lancaster's Medical Statistics Unit will apply state of the art spatial statistics developed by them to identify which cases are related in time and space to quickly identify potential clusters.

Professor Peter Diggle head of Lancaster University's Medical Statistics Unit, said, '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.

'This project is an excellent example of how information technology and statistical methods can be combined to bring a real benefit to the public. If we can use new technology to enhance our ability to monitor and control the spread of gut infections, that has to be a good thing.'

By collecting the information in a more consistent way, it can be analysed rapidly and emerging problems can be detected within 72 hours and health authorities alerted. 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.