EU foodborne outbreak alerts declined in 2020

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Emma Hayes

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A system used by European countries to report outbreaks saw the number of requests fall in 2020 compared to the year before.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) hosts the Epidemic Intelligence Information System for food- and waterborne diseases (EPIS-FWD) platform, which includes Urgent Inquiries.

Urgent inquiries (UI) are launched by countries or ECDC to assess the potential multi-country aspect of national events.

Salmonella main issue
In 2020, 72 urgent inquiries were initiated compared to 88 in 2019, the highest number since the platform was launched. This past year, alerts came from 16 of 52 countries in the network and one on vibriosis was started by ECDC. Almost half were due to Salmonella.

Overall, they related to salmonellosis, listeriosis, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infection, hepatitis A, shigellosis, campylobacteriosis, yersiniosis, botulism, norovirus, psittacosis, tick-borne encephalitis virus and vibriosis. On average, 10 countries replied to each alert.

There was a reduction in detection and response to food and waterborne outbreaks in the first weeks of COVID-19 but the number of incidents being monitored increased during summer and autumn. In 2020, supporting the European COVID-19 response became the main activity of the agency, consuming most of its time and resources.

A six-month inquiry into the performance of ECDC during the pandemic by the European Ombudsman found gaps in transparency practices and a need to improve data received from national authorities.

EPIS is to be replaced by an Event and Threat Management Solution (ETMS), a new tool for detecting and managing events and threats.

WGS developments
By the end of 2020, nine countries were submitting whole genome sequencing listeriosis surveillance data routinely, and eight nations as part of outbreak investigations. In total, 28 possible multi-country clusters of Listeria monocytogenes were detected in Europe. Of these, 16 were found by member states through an UI and 12 by ECDC.

National contact points for food- and waterborne diseases met virtually in March 2020 and discussed the potential cross-border spread of Campylobacter. Later in the year, Sweden launched an UI and the first, WGS-verified cross-border spread of Campylobacter infections was confirmed involving Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Luxembourg.

In 2020, ECDC published two outbreak assessments with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA): a third update on a multi-country Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak linked to eggs and one on Salmonella Typhimurium and Salmonella Anatum infections linked to Brazil nuts.

ECDC developed a system for the collection, management, analysis and storage of whole genome sequencing data that will allow for real-time analysis and visual comparison of sequences to identify common strains and detect outbreaks. It will first be applied to pathogens including Listeria, Salmonella and STEC. Publication was put back because of the pandemic but is set for this year.

Preparatory work on collecting and analyzing WGS data from human and food isolates continued in 2020. In the future, ECDC and EFSA databases will remain separate, but exchange data in real time to search and detect sequences among human and non-human isolates.

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Emma Hayes

There I was in a hot yoga studio with plenty of bright natural light and bending myself into pretzel like positions for the very first time.

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