Scientists have come up with what they say is a better way to prevent foodborne illnesses that strike tens of thousands of Americans each year: Vaccinate cattle against the bacteria that cause them.
The study, conducted by British researchers and published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that vaccinating cattle against virulent E. coli O157 bacteria could cut the number of human cases of the disease by 85 percent.
E. coli, which causes severe gastrointestinal illness and even death in humans, is spread by consuming contaminated food and water, or by contact with livestock feces in the environment.
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The research — led by researchers at the University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh, and the Royal Veterinary College — analyzed veterinary, human, and molecular data to examine the risks of E. coli transmission from cattle to humans, and to estimate the impact of vaccinating cattle.
Although past studies have suggested vaccinating livestock would cut human health risks by 50 percent, the new study said such initiatives could prevent more than 8 in 10 cases of E. coli.
"E. coli O157 is a serious gastrointestinal illness," noted lead researcher, Louise Matthews, M.D. "The economic impact is also serious — for instance studies in the U.S. suggest that healthcare, lost productivity and food product recalls due to E. coli O157 can cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
"Treating cattle in order to reduce the number of human cases certainly makes sense from a human health perspective and, while more work is needed to calculate the cost of a vaccination program, the public health justification must be taken seriously."
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