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Diagnosis of Food Poisoning

A food poisoning (or "foodborne illness") infection isusually diagnosed by specific laboratory tests that identify a specific organismas the cause of illness. Bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E.coli O157 are found by culturing stool samples in the laboratory and identifyingthe bacteria that grow in the controlled environment of the lab. Parasitescan be identified by examining stools under the microscope. Viruses aremore difficult to identify, as they are too small to see under a lightmicroscope and are difficult to culture. Viruses are usually identifiedby testing stool samples for genetic markers that indicate a specific virus ispresent.

Many foodborne infections are not identified by routinelaboratory procedures and require specialized, experimental, and/or expensivetests that are not generally available. If the diagnosis is to be made,the patient must seek medical attention, the physician must decide to orderdiagnostic tests, and the laboratory must use the appropriate procedures. Because many ill persons to not seek attention, and of those that do, many arenot tested, many cases of foodborne illness go undiagnosed. For example, theU.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control andPrevention (CDC) estimates that 38 cases of salmonellosis actually occur forevery case that is actually diagnosed and reported to public healthauthorities.

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