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COVID-19: Typhoid and oppor The coronavirus may have put the strain on many economies but lessons can be learnt from history

Dr Anneline Padayachee


he COVID-19 virus (aka the coronavirus) is leaving the world reeling, but it’s nothing we’ve never seen before (well, not us personally, but generations before). History is riddled with examples of viruses or bacteria gone AWOL, causing widespead fear and suffering. Preventing food poisoning by controlling pathological bacteria and/ or cross-contamination is the basis of food safety systems globally. As an industry, we have systems, procedures, regulations in place to keep consumers safe. So safe, that for the majority of the general public the safety of our food supply is a given. Consumers have no idea what is needed to produce safe food. However, history shows us that a major health outbreak of uncontrollable proportions has quite often been a defining moment for innovation in the food industry (and has produced a greater appreciation for what food producers do). In today’s world, drinking tap water and dairy milk are considered to be the safest food and drinks available (apart from those who are lactose intolerant or activistic in nature). Neither are associated with plague or considered a pandemic killer. But at the start of the 19th Century, typhoid was spreading like, well COVID-19. Considered a plague by some, a pandemic by others, typhoid instilled fear worldwide. Flu like symptoms led to death. Sound familiar? It is, even though it isn’t. The differences: typhoid is a bacterial infection; COVID-19 is viral. Apart from respiratory issues characteristic of COVID-19, both have flu-like symptoms including fever, weakness, abdominal pain, headaches and vomiting. However, typhoid was found to be spreading via poor sanitation, leading to faecal contamination of water and food. In today’s world, typhoid is almost unheard of except in third world countries during monsoonal seasons. 46 Autumn 2020

However, it is easily treated with a vaccine. For COVID-19, we’re still yet to understand the source and the full impact globally. But we do know that it is spreading like wild fire, from one country to another. Hopefully a vaccine is on the way. But like typhoid, COVID-19 is going to need more than just a vaccine to keep it at bay. While global authorities work out how it started in a food market in China, there are other strategies that the food industry can step up to as well. The discovery of typhoid and its transmission route via faecally contaminated water and foods was the precursor to chlorination of water and pasteurisation of milk in the 1800s. While vaccinations and public health campaigns focusing on sanitation and hygiene had led to a decrease in typhoid

spread (similar to COVID-19’s home quarantine, hand sanitiser and elbowbumping strategy), localised outbreaks in the late 1800s affecting whole towns led to water chlorination as a way to disinfect drinking water starting in Germany, then England and the US. Today we still chlorinate water, as a mode to disinfect it, rendering water safe. Louis Pasteur discovered bacterial fermentation and is credited with developing the process of pasteurisation for sterilising microbes in wine in the mid 1800s. However it was not until the late 1800s, when typhoid and tuberculosis (TB) were spreading at pandemic proportions, that pasteurisation was applied to milk. Pasteurisation of milk became the biggest innovation in milk processing since milk stored in sheep stomachs was converted to cheese 6000 odd