Human Intestinal parasites and worms infect 6 of 10 food handlers, studies say.

By Christian V. Esguerra

SIX OUT OF 10 food attendants in school canteens, hospitals, mall food outlets and other eateries in Metro Manila and Metro Cebu are infected with intestinal worms, studies of the University of the Philippines’ National Institutes for Health (NIH) have found.

“This is perhaps the most widespread health problem in the contemporary world because everybody eats,” Dr. Vicente Belizario, the research agency’s deputy director, said in a press conference Thursday.

Helminths (hookworms, roundworms and whipworms) and small, single-celled parasites called protozoans could be easily spread from food handlers to consumers without proper sanitation and public consciousness of the danger, he said.

They are the common causes of diarrhea and malnutrition, Belizario said. In worse cases, they infect not only the intestines but also the liver, gall bladder, lungs and the brain, he said.

Belizario disclosed findings of three separate studies of personnel handling food. The first, conducted in 2002, involved food attendants in 123 school canteens, while the other studies were undertaken last year, covered canteen employees in nearly 100 hospitals, and 138 food attendants in malls.

The results showed no big difference between eating at a lowly, roadside eatery or a classy restaurant.

One case study shown to reporters Thursday showed the video footage of a woman food attendant at a Quezon City “carinderia” (small roadside eatery) using the same rag to dry newly washed plates and tables.

She was also holding the rag while serving food, the documentary showed.

An elegant bistro in Makati City boasts of well-trained waiters, but the danger of worm infection still lurks, according to another case report.

The waiter was shown using the same dirty rag to wipe the table and, later, the food tray. He rinsed it only afterward.

A discomforting note in both cases was the manner through which both food attendants secured health permits from their respective local governments.

Belizario said most of the people applying for permits were often tested for worm infection only through the non-intensive direct fecal smear (DFS) procedure.

The DFS procedure, for instance, found only 6.5 percent of food handlers in canteens in Metro Manila as infected with intestinal parasites. A subsequent test using the more sensitive concentration technique recorded 13.8 percent, according to the expert.

Another study presented by Belizario involved dietary service workers in a tertiary hospital in Metro Manila. It discovered an infection rate of 42.4 percent.

A tertiary hospital is defined as fully departmentalized and equipped with service capabilities to support medical specialists and other licensed physicians rendering services in medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology and surgery, as well as subspecialties and ancillary services.

Another case study showed a 38.3-percent infection rate among mall employees involved in food preparation in Metro Cebu.

Faced with the alarming reports and the prospect of even more infection, the Department of Health has come up with a new order requiring stringent guidelines for the “parasitologic” screening of food handlers.

The administrative order, issued on Jan. 10, adopts the Formalin Ether/Ethyl Acetate Concentration Technique (FECT) as the “procedure of choice for stool examination by the local health units.”

The FECT is a more intensive procedure compared with the more popular and widely used DFS method.

The order also requires food handlers to be examined at least once a year.

“It’s not acceptable to have worms in this day and age,” Belizario said.