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How do Ohio local health departments investigate a suspected foodborne disease outbreak?

There are several steps involved once a suspected outbreak is reported to the local health department.  First, the health department attempts to collect initial information to better describe the details (who/what/when/where) of the occurrence. Often this involves interviewing the individuals involved with the suspected outbreak. At the same time, laboratory specimens may be collected by the health department from people that are sick. Testing of human specimens and food may be conducted at the Ohio Department of Health, State Public Health Laboratory. Details collected during interviews of the ill help outbreak investigators determine which pathogens to test for at the state laboratory. If a restaurant or caterer was involved in the event, environmental health personnel from the Ohio local health department will be involved in the inspection. Other types of retail establishments would be inspected by the Ohio Department of Agriculture in order to determine if any factors can be identified that may have led to the outbreak. During both types of inspections, environmental health specialists record all violations and discuss them with the person in charge, in an attempt to educate them to prevent any repeat occurrences. Certain critical violations are fixed immediately as they are found during the inspection.

Puzzle PiecesAs information is collected, health department investigators try to put the “pieces of the puzzle” together, to come up with an educated guess (also called a hypothesis) as to what might have caused this outbreak. If the health department finds a likely candidate, an analytic study will be started. Food histories of the ill people will be compared to the food histories of the well people to identify likely culprits.  After an investigation has been completed, a report will be written by the local health district. This narrative report summarizes the findings of the outbreak investigation and provides recommendations to prevent its repeat occurrence in the future.

Last updated: 09/06/2013