Exploring the Relationship between Food Access and Foodborne Illness by Using Spatial Analysis
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There is some evidence that neighborhood deprivation increases residents' risk of foodborne illnesses. Because urban areas with the least available access to adequate amounts of nutritious or affordable food options (or "food deserts") also tend to be the most deprived areas within a city, it is hypothesized that food access and foodborne illness risk are linked. However, the complexity of tracking numbers and sources of gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses often leads researchers to speculate about reasons for disproportionate rates of pathogen outbreaks among demographic groups. This study explores the suitability of existing data to examine associations between food deserts and the spatial distribution of GI illnesses in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. A spatial analysis by using GIS software methodology was used to identify and map food retail outlets and accessibility, as well as GI illness outbreaks and sales of antidiarrhea, antinausea, and rehydration products (used as a proxy for GI cases) within the city, based on available data. Statistical analysis of the maps shows no statistical relationship between location, access to food outlets, and rates of GI illness. The analysis points to shortfalls and gaps in the existing data, which leaves us unable to draw conclusions either supporting or refuting our hypothesis. This article includes recommendations to improve the current system of illness reporting and to continue to refine the definition and process of mapping food access issues. A more comprehensive set of data would enable municipalities to more easily identify groups most at risk, depending on exposures and the type of pathogen, and reduce the occurrence of foodborne disease.
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