EFSA recommendations on the prevention and reduction of animal diseases transmissible to humans (zoonoses)

At the end of last year the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its first annual report[1] on infectious diseases transmissible from animals to humans (zoonoses) which affect over 380,000 EU citizens per year. Based on this report, at the request of the Council of Ministers of the European Union (EU), EFSA has now for the first time set out a series of scientific conclusions and recommendations and risk communications initiatives to prevent and reduce zoonotic diseases in the EU. The Authority has also identified aspects of the zoonoses reporting system that should be improved.

The Opinion was prepared by EFSA’s Scientific Panels on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) and Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) in close co-operation with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) which provided input on the recommendations related to human data.

The two most commonly reported zoonotic diseases in 2004 were salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis accounting for 192,703 and 183,961 reported cases respectively. According to the EFSA Opinion, the major sources of Salmonella are contaminated eggs and egg products and contaminated poultry meat. EFSA therefore supports the Community strategy of setting reduction targets for Salmonella in poultry[2]. Contaminated poultry meat is also a major source of Campylobacter and EFSA recommends that measures be taken along the poultry chain to reduce the prevalence of these bacteria.

Listeriosis which is a cause of severe disease in humans, accounted for the highest number of reported human fatalities (107 deaths) amongst the 11 zoonoses covered in the EFSA zoonoses report. EFSA recommends that good manufacture, handling and hygienic practices, as well as the HACCP[3] hazard identification approach be applied effectively by food manufacturers in order to decrease Listeria contamination levels in food.

Toxoplasmosis which can seriously affect the unborn child and immunocompromised individuals was the most frequently notified zoonotic disease caused by parasites. EFSA considers the disease to be under-detected and under-reported and recommends education campaigns targeted at vulnerable individuals addressing cooking and food hygiene practices, as well as the handling of cat litter.

Antimicrobial resistance in zoonotic bacteria found in food producing animals is identified in the Opinion as a public health concern. EFSA recommends the mandatory monitoring of the use of antimicrobial treatments in food producing animals and the implementation of risk communication measures targeted at farmers and veterinary practitioners stressing the importance of prudent use of antimicrobials in animals.

The Opinion also notes with concern the apparent higher incidence amongst young children of infection from Salmonella, verotoxin producing E.coli and Yersinia and EFSA identifies the need for further investigation into this trend.

The EFSA Opinion stresses the need for further clarification on the role of contaminated water in causing zoonotic diseases and foodborne outbreaks and identifies contaminated animal feed as an important route for introducing Salmonella into livestock.

According to the Opinion, rabies continues to pose a serious fatal human health risk in areas where rabies is present in wildlife. In endemic areas, EFSA recommends oral immunisation in the major wild reservoir species such as foxes and racoons through Community level co-ordinated actions as well as vaccination and registration and identification of domestic pets.

EFSA also recommends that at a general level the risk communication initiatives aiming at the improvement of food hygiene procedures and hygienic food handling be targeted at food operators, vulnerable groups in the population, as well as the general public.

The Opinion also makes several recommendations for improving the EU monitoring and reporting system for zoonoses, amongst which the need for:

  • a common strategy on data collection, monitoring and reporting as well as the improvement of harmonization of definitions,
  • mandatory monitoring of antimicrobial usage in animals,
  • distinguishing between infection acquired domestically or abroad when reporting human cases or outbreaks,
  • inclusion of data on the origin of implicated food when reporting,
  • improvement in the calculation of disease burden through use of approaches such as DALYs (Disability-Adjusted Life Years[4]) rather than solely reporting case numbers.
Notes to editors

The 2004 EFSA zoonoses report was published in 2005 and provides data on the 11 zoonotic diseases identified according to Directive 92/117/EEC: Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, verotoxin producing E.coli, Brucella, Yersinia, Trichinella, Echinococcus and Toxoplasma as well as tuberculosis caused by Mycobacterium bovis and rabies.

The presence of a zoonotic bacteria or parasites in food does not necessarily mean that this will result in a corresponding number of human cases as safe handling, preparation and cooking of foods will help prevent these diseases in humans.  Information on the safe handling, preparation and cooking of foods can be obtained from national food safety authorities and from the WHO.

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