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'Tis the season for food poisoning

Professor Michael Baker from Otago University's Department of Public Health said Christmas dinner could be making a second, third or fourth appearance if handled poorly.

But there are things you can do to avoid any unwanted microscopic guests ruining Christmas.

Prof Baker said cases of gastroenteritis and food poisoning tend to peak in summer.

"The ones you really need to watch out for are bacteria that may multiply at room temperature on food, like salmonella and the staph toxin is produced by food that's left out," he said.

Prof Baker said the best way to avoid this was keeping food in the fridge rather than out on the table, but the one exception was a Christmas favourite - chicken - which made about 100 people sick with campylobacter every day.

"There are things people can do, buy cooked or frozen chicken, but if you do use fresh chicken one of the worst things you could do is wash it under the tap. It blasts the bacteria all over your kitchen," he said.

He said meningococcal is rare, and many GPs would never have seen a real case, but it is a disease people have been more concerned about recently.

"What has changed this year has been the arrival of another group called W, which has a higher case fatality, 20 to 25 percent of people are dying of that, which does change the level of risk around this bacteria."

He said if parents were worried they could watch out for a child getting sick quickly, with high fever and headache, sleepiness, stiff neck or dislike of bright lights.

"Particularly if they get a skin rash appearing then they do need urgent treatment. We do know from research here you can almost halve your risk of dying from this infection if you get antibiotics very quickly from a GP, before the case is taken to hospital."

He said it could be spread from sneezing, coughing and direct saliva contact, but it could also be a mark of poverty.

"If you have children living in very crowded houses they have the highest rates of disease, but it can also occur in teenagers who are moving into communal situations, halls of residence or camping situations."

Whooping cough is also hanging around this holiday season.

"We do have these big cyclical epidemics, we're just coming out of it at the moment, but we're still seeing almost 200 cases a month," Prof Baker said.

He said the best thing to do was to make sure parents and children were vaccinated.

But to avoid putting more of a dampener on Christmas than a burst of rain at a barbecue, or receiving an ugly sweater from a relative, acute overnight hospital admissions on Christmas Day are surprisingly low.

"There are still 760 acute admissions on Christmas Day. Around 150 have injuries and 230 have infections. This is actually the lowest number of admissions of any day of the year by quite a big margin," he said.

He said there was also a jump on Boxing Day, which may indicate people were deferring treatment until the next day.

But Prof Baker said one of the biggest health threats this time of year and the rest of the year wasn't a disease or bacteria, but alcohol.

"It does make a big contribution to drowning, fatalities on the road, mental health problems and domestic violence, so I think being very conscious of alcohol use is one of the most important messages over the Christmas period," he said.

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