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The 'pan' truth

The popular Indian after-dinner digestive could be the harbinger of a deadly bacteria that causes disease like typhoid.

health and fitness Updated: Nov 30, 2007 19:08 IST

That particularly Indian anytime delight and after dinner digestive, the pan, can be carcinogenic and terrible for your teeth. But did you also know that betel leaves can harbour the potentially fatal salmonella bacteria?

The common sight of betel leaves soaking in water at the innumerable pan kiosks in your city is the harbinger of salmonella infection that can cause typhoid, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea and sometimes vomiting. <b1>

According to the WHO, salmonella is a genus of bacteria that are a major cause of food-borne illness throughout the world. The bacteria are generally transmitted to humans through consumption of contaminated food of animal origin, mainly meat, poultry, eggs and milk.

But a study by researchers at the National Salmonella Centre at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute in Uttar Pradesh's Izatnagar, found salmonella bacteria in betel leaves too.

"Salmonella is a very common bacteria, whose mode of transfer is through contaminated food and water. It is not surprising if it is found in pan, as the shopkeepers keep the betel leaves soaked for long hours in water that may be infected," cautioned Sandeep Budhiraja, head of the department of internal medicine, Max Healthcare.

"The bacterium commonly causes typhoid and we get at least 10 cases of it weekly. Common symptoms are high fever, severe aches, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation. Urgent medical assistance must be provided to the patient; otherwise it may lead to gastrointestinal bleeding and multiple organ failure that can prove fatal," Budhiraja told IANS.

He said the organism is responsive to medication but resistant to oral antibiotics, so a patient is given intravenous antibiotics.

"This disease is not acquired because of lack of personal hygiene but because of contamination via food or water. In India, when people go out to eat in a restaurant they drink mineral water but they never think of cleanliness when it comes to pan," said Rajan Gupta, MD pathology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals.

The study has sent alarm bells ringing through the world of pan lovers, many of whom can't do without the periodic fix and are known to carry betel leaves when they travel abroad.

Zoheb Beg, a businessman, said: "I love pan and I never knew the serious health hazards a contaminated pan can cause. I am completely taken aback."

"I never gave a thought to the cleanliness of the pan shop but from now onwards I think I will have to quit," added Shubham Dharmani, a call centre employee.

There is hope, however.

Any contamination can be easily avoided by increasing awareness about hygiene maintenance and pan-lovers can continue to enjoy their favourite mouth freshener.

"If everybody makes sure that what they eat is prepared in a clean place with pure hands and water then it can be easily avoided. It is best to make a pan at home," suggested Budhiraja.

And where is the fun in that? ask the legion of pan eaters in India.