Public health folks seem to wrestle with when to make investigation information public: they want to have enough data to be confident before fingering any specific foods or locales. Releasing incorrect or incomplete information, like the Florida tomato industry often points out, can affect business. Sitting on info can further put individuals at risk.
Schaffner often credits epidemiologist Paul Mead with summarizing the problem “If you’re wrong, you went public too early; if you’re right, you went [public] too late.”
Having a consistent policy on what gets released when is lacking in the public health world – and Toronto Public Health (TPH), in an effort to increase openness and transparency, is pulling back the curtain on outbreak investigations. According to the Toronto Star’s Robert Cribb, TPH has begun listing all current confirmed and investigated healthcare-linked outbreaks on their website, and will update the list weekly.
For the first time, all outbreaks in Toronto nursing homes, retirement homes and hospitals will be publicly posted on a city website — a new public health disclosure system prompted by a Toronto Star-Ryerson University investigation.
Each Thursday, Toronto Public Health will now detail outbreaks by nature, institution name and address, as well as indicate whether it is still active. The reports will include both gastroenteric outbreaks (such as those causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever) and respiratory infections (which result in symptoms such as coughing, runny noses, sore throats, fevers).
The current report, covering the week of Feb. 13-19, lists 15 outbreaks — 10 in long-term care homes, three in retirement homes and two in hospitals. Ten were still active at time of reporting.
“(The new disclosure system) is a good idea,” said Doug Powell, a Canadian food safety expert. “They’re already collecting this information, so making it public isn’t that much more work. They work for the public and they’re there to serve public health. And from a personal point of view, I’d want to know if one of my relatives were in one of those institutions. It brings a level of public accountability.”