PulseNet, a national network of public health laboratories, prevents an estimated 270,000 cases of food poisoning and saves half a billion dollars every year, according to a study released in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine today. In comparison, the network costs public health agencies about $7 million a year to run.
Launched in 1996, PulseNet has revolutionized how foodborne disease outbreaks are detected and investigated. For the past 20 years, the PulseNet network—a partnership among the Centers for Disease Control and Outbreak (CDC), state public health laboratories, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Association of Public Health Laboratories—has connected cases of foodborne illness by comparing DNA fingerprints of foodborne bacteria and matching illnesses across the country that may be from the same source.
Before PulseNet, foodborne disease outbreaks often went undetected or were discovered only after they grew very large. Using PulseNet methods, public health investigators can find outbreaks even if only a few people are sick and they live in different parts of the country. By identifying outbreaks earlier, investigators can quickly find the source of the illness, recall contaminated food, and prevent more illnesses. PulseNet investigations have resulted in safer products and food handling practices, through new or improved guidance, policy and regulations.
Whole genome sequencing is providing even more accurate fingerprinting for a better match among bacteria, making PulseNet more powerful and precise. This technology can help disease detectives find foodborne outbreaks faster and investigate them more effectively.
Future technological advances are also important to help PulseNet overcome challenges posed by culture-independent tests that doctors are increasingly using to diagnose foodborne illness. These test present a challenge for PulseNet because they give quick results but don’t provide the living bacteria that the network’s current technology needs to create and analyze DNA fingerprints. Without those fingerprints, PulseNet won’t be able to find outbreaks.
CDC is working with public health officials, diagnostic labs, tests manufacturers, and doctors to find solutions so we can continue discovering and solving foodborne outbreaks.