Us: Hi there! Today, we will be conducting an interview with Dr. Quan Vuong! He currently holds a Bachelor of Science: Agriculture and Post-Harvest Technology degree and a Master of Science: Human Nutrition and Food Technology degree. He previously worked on antioxidants in food.This is his first epidemiology project.
Please, tell us a little bit about your study.
This is a project on childhood poisoning. I looked at all outbreaks due to poisoning in children: from food and chemical poisoning, to venomous bites. The aim is to identify the main cause in childhood poisoning, emerging trends, and assess the public awareness of first-aid skills, so that the government can have appropriate prevention measures. (for example, increasing public awareness, or stop certain food being produced, increasing food / chemical quality control,…)
Can you tell us where exactly this study was carried out?
The project was carried out in Hue and Dong Thap (two provinces of Vietnam) for 2 months in 2006.
Now, I know there are occasional poisonings here and there, so what would you consider an outbreak?
An “outbreak” in this project means 10 or more children displaying the same symptoms. I go to hospitals and gather information about poisoning in children. Then once an outbreak is identified, our team go to the community and start interviewing people. Usually we identify many more cases at the community which did not get reported to the hospital.
How are these outbreaks different from that of Avian Flu?
These outbreaks are different from avian flu in the sense that there could be many causes (so for each cause, we classify it as a separate outbreak and have to monitor it separately – so at the same time I had to investigate multiple outbreaks). Also, in food poisoning, sometimes the effects are not immediate. So the outbreak could be happening over a long period of time, with a few people displaying symptoms each month, therefore often go on unnoticed by the public.
How did you collect the data from the people?
When I go to the community, I asked them for the cause of poisoning. With severe case (in which the children had to go to hospitals), the cause is usually obvious. (for example, snake bite, or after eating some food…). No lab work is needed. But the most interesting thing is the “snowball” effect: when we ask one person in the community, often other people in the community would also identify that their children had the same food, or used the same lotion, for example. And then we come and investigate these houses – and so on. So this research relied largely on interviewing the public, and analyzing the information they give. If you think about it, the people is a wealth of information that cannot be accessed by sitting in labs or staying at hospitals. (that is, these kind of “snowball” effect cannot occur at hospitals).
How would you stop the epidemic once you found the cause?
Once we identified the cause (example, food poisoning), we go to the producer of the food, examined how the food was produced. Chemical tests are used when required – but really it is obvious from the poor hygienic conditions, and sometimes the use of preservatives and colorings with unknown manufacturer or expiry date, that the true cause of poisoning is identified.
What are some of the ways to prevent childhood poisoning?
The most effective way to prevent childhood poisoning is to increase the public awareness. Most of the poisoning cases are food poisoning. These days people use too many pesticides, insecticides, preservatives, coloring… in vegetables and meat. These chemicals leave residues in food, and children are the most susceptible. First aid: in general the people do not perform it correctly, or unaware of the importance of first aid. So the poisoning case, when transported to hospital, is usually in the late stage. For example, if a child has pesticide poisoning, then the correct first aid is to make the child vomit out the poisoning. But the parents were not aware, so they transported the child to the hospital directly, and because it is a long way from the hospital, it became a quite severe poisoning case.
How many cases of poisoning did you find? What caused them?
We got 68 cases of poisoning from the hospital, but actually we identified many more cases through the snowball effect. The main cause is food poisoning – and there are 4 main types: bacterial contamination, additives, chemical residue in food, and food coloring. Most of these poisoning come from everyday food which we normally buy from restaurants: like sea food, sweets, various types of cakes and desserts, …
So what are you doing to stop it?
In Vietnam, the food quality control is not yet well-established. People are usually unaware of how the food has been produced. So we are writing the report now – hopefully submitting it to the government, so they can carry out a campaign in food quality control. We also plan to publish the results in public newspaper to raise the public awareness.
One last question; what is your favorite part of being an epidemiologist?
My favorite part is to finding the cause of the outbreak. The cause is unknown, so I feel like I am a detective. It’s a great to identify the exact chemical that caused the outbreak – all the pieces of data we gathered instantly come together.
Our team would like to acknowledge you, Dr. Quan, and your efforts, and we thank you sincerely for your time.