June 08, 2009

Fast-acting 'Team D' sleuths out sources of foodborne illness

Source of Article:  http://blogs.consumerreports.org/safety/2009/06/university-of-minnesota-school-of-public-health-team-d-diarrhea-foodborn-illness-salmonella-ecoli.html

Graduate students in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health vie to get on an elite team, even if they have to put up with its icky nickname—Team D. That's D as in diarrhea. The team's claim to fame is the speed at which it has tracked down the culprits in several recent high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness involving salmonella and E. coli.

Team D played a vital role in figuring out that jalapeño peppers were behind a nationwide outbreak of salmonella last summer, accurately contradicting the best guesses of federal food-safety officials that tomatoes were the likely source. Earlier this year, Team D played a similarly critical role in identifying institutional jars of peanut butter as the source of a cluster of salmonella cases in Minnesota, a finding that ultimately led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history by the Peanut Corporation of America.

So what’s the secret? It’s pretty simple: The students lose no time getting on the phone with every person in the state who has reported contracting a foodborne illness, quizzing them about what they ate and where they ate it in the days before they became ill. All that information is immediately sent to epidemiologists and other disease-detecting experts at the Minnesota Department of Health, which operates one of the top labs in the country for fingerprinting the DNA of viruses.

“I don’t know how we could do the job we do without Team D,” says Kirk Smith, supervisor of the department's foodborne disease division. “It’s probably fair to say they are the brawn, and we—along with the (Minnesota) Department of Agriculture—are the brains.”

Smith says several key factors have made Minnesota’s foodborne illness sleuthing efforts so successful. First, Minnesota law requires hospitals and clinics to send stool samples from suspected salmonella and E. coli victims to a state lab for testing. The lab is able to test samples within a day or two, according to Smith. In other states, it can take weeks.

The lab issues daily reports to the state’s epidemiologists, comparing the results to other cases both within Minnesota and nationally. The scientists look for clusters and patterns that could indicate an outbreak.

Team D has become a model that Michael Osterholm, director of the university's infectious disease research center, hopes other states will follow. “We believe a series of regional Team Ds or a national Team D would go a long way to providing precisely the real-time support for outbreak investigations at the state and local levels that is so sorely needed,” he told a congressional subcommittee well before the peanut product recall.

Craig Hedberg, a professor at the school of public health who helps coordinate Team D, says working on the team is among the most sought after positions for graduate students. “Unlike a lot of graduate student jobs, working for Team D doesn’t involve tuition credits of assistance, but they want to do it anyway,” he says. “It is some of the best experience they can get if they want to be involved in epidemiology and public health. The Team D experience is teaching a whole group of graduate students the best on-the-ground techniques for effectively interviewing victims.”



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