Refugees and migrants are more prone to foodborne diseases

When people are on the move and reach geographical areas different from those of their home country, they are more likely to experience disrupted or uncertain supplies of safe food and water, especially under difficult and sometimes desperate circumstances. In addition, basic public services - such as electricity and transport - can break down. In these conditions, people may be more prone to use inedible or contaminated food ingredients, cook food improperly or eat spoilt food.

Refugees and migrants typically become ill during their journey, especially in overcrowded settlements. Living conditions can lead to unsanitary conditions for obtaining, storing or preparing food, and overcrowding increases the likelihood of outbreaks of food- and waterborne diseases. Examples of such diseases are salmonellosis, shigellosis, campylobacteriosis and norovirus and hepatitis A infections.

Know the food you eat

When people do not know a new environment but forage for food, they can fall victim to toxic plants that look similar to edible species in their own countries, as happened in Germany when refugees ate poisonous mushrooms. While some toxic fungi just cause vomiting and diarrhoea, others can cause hallucinations, kidney and liver damage and even death.  

Refugees and migrants are recommended to

  • not collect food ingredients, plants or mushrooms in the wild if they are not familiar with edible food growing in the country they are in;
  • be circumspect with food ingredients, plants or mushrooms in the wild that look similar to edible ones in their home country; and
  • seek immediate medical help in cases of suspected food poisoning.

Apply WHO's five keys to safer food

Foodborne and waterborne diseases can easily reach epidemic proportions among refugees and migrants in camps, but many can be avoided. Information about how to handle food safely, such as WHO's five keys to safer foods, should be disseminated. In particular,

  • Thorough cooking (> 70 °C) is critical when it is difficult to keep food refrigerated and to keep hands and surfaces clean,
  • Only safe water should be used. If in doubt, people should use bottled water or boil water for drinking and food preparation (e.g. for washing and cooking food and washing utensils and plates).

Keep hydrated in case of diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is the most common symptom associated with foodborne illness but can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting or fever. Most diarrhoeal episodes clear up within a few days.  

The most important reaction is to avoid becoming dehydrated. Refugees and migrants are recommended to drink sufficient amounts of safe fluids, including boiled or bottled water. Coffee, overly sweetened drinks and alcohol should be avoided in cases of diarrhoea. This is especially important for the elderly and children. 

If a person is restless, shows signs of extreme thirst or has sunken eyes or dry skin with reduced elasticity, medical attention should be sought immediately. This is also the case if bowel movements are very frequent, very watery, contain blood or last beyond 3 days.