By Oge Okafor
There is no doubt that fast food and ready made food (food-on-the-go) being sold by street side vendors, local bukas, restaurants and even some fast food joints tickle the taste buds and easily satiate nagging hunger and one of the basic necessities of life, but they can also cause serious health problems. Though they are cheap and affordable for the common man, they are prepared and stored unhygienically and can be a source of epidemic in the community.
It’s true that food that is prepared and served by these street side vendors is unhygienic and are susceptible to water-borne and food-borne illnesses. If you take a look around, it’s common to see these food vendors preparing food consumed by roadsides, near gutters, septic tanks, refuse dumps, parks and all manner of odd places. For instance, you can find a woman frying akara (bean cakes) or another selling rice near the gutter.
One can contract bacterial and viral infections eating these often contaminated foods. The bacteria can be contracted from the food vendors due to poor hygiene or by the unhygienic way they prepare and serve the food.
According to Dr Gabriel Omonaiye, the dangers that come with eating roadside food could be that patrons risk contracting typhoid, gastroenteritis or suffer food poisoning. He defines unhygienic places cited above to include bus stops and just anywhere.
Salmonella bacteria infection is a major food-borne illness that one can contract by eating unhygienic food. This infection can lead to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea as well as fever. One is also susceptible to other bacterial and viral infections such as rotavirus by eating roadside food. These unhygienic food stalls can become a source of epidemics like cholera too.
Only recently in Lagos State, the state government disclosed that 45 cases of cholera were recorded in Isolo Local Council Development Area of the state, of which six deaths had already been recorded.
According to the state Commissioner for Health, Dr Jide Idris, the source of the outbreak was traced to consumption of local salad called abacha, a staple food of residents of Isolo council area. Some wells in the communities were also suspected because samples collected and taken to laboratory revealed salmonella species and E. coli and also yielded vibro cholera growth after continuous culture.
Symptoms of the disease include nausea, profuse diarrhoea (watery stool), vomiting, fever, leg cramps and in severe cases dehydration, coma and death. The risk of contracting these diseases increases by drinking polluted water and poor hygiene including open defecation, the commissioner stated.
Speaking on Your View, a TV programme, Dr Bankole Akinwale said the symptoms of cholera starts manifesting between five hours and five days of consuming contaminated food.
Another concern is that the water used by these food vendors is not filtered and it’s taken from unhygienic sources. For instance, it’s common knowledge that most homes in Lagos State use wells as their source of water supply and for economic reasons and ignorance, these wells are not properly treated.
Especially during dry season, due to a rise in temperature and humidity, there is an increase in viral and bacterial infections. Serving unhygienic food is not only limited to road side food vendors. Even restaurants too are culpable. Though polluted water is a factor, undercooked meat and tinned food can also be sources of salmonella infection.
Why people eat roadside food
Roadside food can usually affect the stomach and the intestines leading to common bacterial illnesses like gastroenteritis, diarrhoea and jaundice, among others.
Also, these food vendors use baking soda or potash as cooking substitutes, which can lead to acidity, vomiting and even hyperacidity in some cases. Worse still, bacterial infection can lead to loss of appetite and even typhoid. Generally, people tend to be attracted to these street food joints because it’s cheap and quick.
Even if some of these foods are served hot, it does not mean that the germs are destroyed. Germs can be transferred when food is served in dirty plates and when vendors don’t observe good hygiene. It’s important to spread awareness among the general public to eat at hygienic places.
Where these street food vendors source water is not the only issue that is worrisome. The whole process of preparing and serving unhygienic food and in dirty surroundings is equally a cause for concern. These foods are prepared near gutters. Also, the cloth used by these vendors to dry utensils is dirty, their hands are dirty and their plates are not properly cleaned.
To make matters worse, sanitary inspectors don’t check on these food outlets. The bigger issue is that there is low awareness among the general public regarding hygiene.
Meanwhile, Dr Idris has called on everyone to imbibe personal hygiene and other control measures like washing hands with soap and water frequently and thoroughly especially after using the toilet.
Water should be boiled before drinking especially if the source of water is poor. He also warned against open defecation which has been linked to cholera epidemic and diarrhoea.
Omonaiye also appealed to government, particularly state governments to regulate how food is sold, where food can be sold and cooked and ensure strict enforcement. In cases where state governments cannot do it alone, local government assistance can be solicited through the use of local health and sanitary inspectors.
Again, the public needs to be enlightened to be wary of places where they eat- people should not just eat anywhere and everywhere.
Also, food handlers should be screened to know if they’re carriers of infectious agents and diseases.
Although, it seems like a Herculean task, in the first step is in beginning it and that will go a long way to help.
Meanwhile, Lagos State lawmakers have appealed to Governor Akinwunmi Ambode to bring back sanitary inspectors (wole wole). Also, Dr Akinwale said health inspectors have started moving around homes and communities creating awareness and enforcing strict hygienic measures which some people believe is a means to extort money from the public.
He also added that once symptoms are observed, infected individuals should report to the nearest health facility and in case of stooling, electrolytes should be replaced.