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Who dies from food illness
Scripps Howard News Service


November 22, 2006

Infectious intestinal diseases from food- and waterborne illnesses were diagnosed as the cause of death for 3,142 Americans in a one-year period, according to an analysis of death records provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The actual number of Americans who die from food poisoning is a matter of conjecture. Statisticians at the CDC in Atlanta have estimated that at least 5,000 Americans die every year from something they ate.




But doctors and medical examiners have been increasingly likely to list intestinal diseases as the primary cause of death in recent years, suggesting a growing sensitivity to the threats posed by food- and water-related diseases.

According to federal records based on death certificates, only 1,370 Americans died of infectious intestinal diseases in 2000. Food- and water-based deaths rose to 1,586 in 2001, to 2,496 in 2002 and to 3,142 in 2003, the most recent year available.

"That is just the tip of the iceberg," said Ewen Todd, director of the Food Safety Policy Center at Michigan State University.

"We've all heard that America has the safest food system in the world. That phrase gets quoted a lot. But ever since the Jack in the Box restaurant outbreak of 1994, that complacency has been shaken. We've had a wake-up call since then. People have tended to underestimate the danger."

About 700 people got sick in four states in the outbreak caused by a deadly strain of E. coli transmitted from improperly cooked hamburger patties at the Jack in the Box fast-food chain. Four children died.

In an attempt to demystify food-related sickness, Scripps Howard News Service conducted a demographic analysis of the 3,142 Americans who were reported to have died from intestinal infections in 2003.

A majority of those deaths, almost 84 percent, occurred in people over 70 years of age. Women accounted for almost 65 percent of the total.

More than half the people who died were widowed. Married people accounted for 33 percent and people who never married accounted for only 7 percent of the deaths.

Blacks accounted for only 6 percent of the reported deaths, or only half their proportion of the general population. Whites accounted for 93 percent, and other racial minorities just 1 percent.

Of the total, 81 percent of the people died in hospitals, but more worrisome is the fact that 13 percent of people died at home, indicating that they did not seek or receive medical help.

Almost 80 percent of the deaths occurred in metropolitan areas.

Florida reported 348 deaths due to intestinal infections, accounting for 11 percent of the total number of deaths, followed by California (which has double Florida's population) and Ohio, which had 281 and 259 deaths, respectively. Sparsely populated Wyoming reported the least number of deaths due to intestinal infections with just two cases in 2003.

Pittsburgh's Allegheny County had the highest number of deaths of any county in the nation with 75, followed by Cleveland's Cuyahoga County with 64 and Los Angeles County with 63 cases reported in 2003.

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