Fact Sheet

Young Children and Foodborne Illness

Each year, an estimated 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—contracts a foodborne illness, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Many pathogens commonly transmitted through food have a disproportionate impact on children younger than 5. Some die from these preventable illnesses, and many others suffer lasting, even lifelong, health problems.

Children face higher risks when exposed to foodborne pathogens because their less-developed immune systems have a limited ability to fight infections. Also, their lower body weight reduces the amount of a pathogen needed to cause illness.

By the numbers: Young children and foodborne pathogens

  • Children under 5 experience higher rates of laboratory-confirmed infections from eight of the 10 major foodborne pathogens, both bacteria and parasites, tracked by the public health system.
  • Even though young children are more likely than the general population to get a diagnosis of foodborne illness, the incidence of many pathogens remains higher for the young than for all other ages combined. Significant reductions in foodborne infections among young children are likely to be necessary to achieve the Healthy People 2020* objectives for several of its targeted pathogens.
  • A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at five foodborne pathogens and found that Salmonella was the leading cause of bacterial illnesses in children under 5, accounting for more than 40 percent of the estimated illnesses and doctor visits and approximately 60 percent of estimated hospitalizations and deaths.
  • Listeria monocytogenes infections pose an increased risk for pregnant women and newborns. Pregnant women are about 10 times more likely than the general population to get a Listeria infection; about 1 in 7 cases occur during pregnancy. Illness can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth, premature delivery, or illness/death of the newborn. Many other severe complications and long-term effects can result.
  • Norovirus infections are the leading cause of medically attended acute gastroenteritis among children under 5 in the United States. A recent study estimated that in 2009 and 2010 the average numbers of annual hospitalizations (more than 14,000), emergency department visits (more than 281,000), and outpatient visits (more than 627,000) due to norovirus infection among young children in the United States resulted in more than $273 million in treatment costs each year.

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Matt Mulkey

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