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Food poisoning rules 'not working'

The current system for notifying the authorities of suspected cases of food poisoning is unfit for purpose and may need to be scrapped altogether, say researchers.

A new audit has uncovered dramatic under-reporting of suspected cases by GPs and revealed that a recent drive to improve reporting has failed to have any impact.

The reporting rate in the new study is even lower than previous surveys – just 0.8 per 1,000 patients. Previous studies have shown that about 200 people in every thousand get food poisoning every year but only 33 present to their GP, and only one of those would be reported to the national surveillance service.

The latest even lower reporting rate of 0.8 per 1,000 patients came from a study carried out in Wakefield and reported in the Journal of Public Health.

Study leader Dr Fiona Day, specialist registrar for Leeds PCT, said the system had never worked properly and there needed to be a debate among the profession about how to improve it. 'The current notification system is not working in respect of gastroenteritis and food poisoning, and should be either substantially revised or abandoned. There was an incredibly poor rate of notification and a lot of GPs were notifying on the basis of a laboratory-confirmed stool sample rather than when the patient presented.'

Dr Day, who was working at the Health Protection Agency when she carried out the study, said the reasons for under-reporting could be related to misunderstanding of how the scheme works or concern among doctors they may be notifying too often if they fill out a form for every patient with gastroenteritis.

A Health Protection Agency spokesperson said the Notification of Infectious Diseases System was there to encourage GPs to report suspected cases of infectious diseases and insisted the system was fit for purpose. There are limitations to this system. However, we are confident that these limitations do not lead to any risks to public health because of alternative notification systems that are in place. We are confident these systems together allow us to maintain an accurate picture of patients who present to healthcare services and to respond appropriately to protect the wider public health.'

Food poisoning and the law Food poisoning and the law

• All doctors are required to notify suspected cases of specific infections and food poisoning under 1988 legislation dating back to 1889
• Main aim of the notification system is to detect outbreaksor epidemics
• Doctors are asked to notify promptly based on clinical suspicion and not wait for laboratory confirmation
• The reporting doctor earns a fee for each notification of £3.36; failure to notify, in theory, carries the risk of a fine

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