CONSUMERS are being warned about the potential health risks when barbecuing chicken after a spike in cases of food poisoning linked to poultry.
More than 1,000 people have become ill with vomiting and diarrhoea in five weeks - up 27 per cent on the average figure for the same period over the past three years.
Experts are reminding barbecue lovers about the importance of handling and cooking chicken properly following the surge in illness cause by the campylobacter bacteria.
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NHS Scotland laboratories have confirmed a total of 1,073 infections with the bug but, as not all patients will have contacted the health service for advice, the actual number of people who have developed symptoms is likely to be higher.
Campylobacter infections are frequently caused by contact with raw poultry and lead to stomach pain, sickness and diarrhoea. While most people recover quickly, the symptoms can last for up to 11 days. In the worst cases people can die from complications, with young children and the elderly most at risk.
Dr Alison Smith-Palmer, epidemiologist for Health Protection Scotland, which monitors diseases, said: "One of the ways people get it is through mishandled poultry, such as washing it under the kitchen tap or handling raw poultry and then bread products or salad.
"Another way is by not cooking poultry properly on the barbecue."
It is typical for cases of campylobacter to increase in the summer months in Scotland. This is linked to the popularity of barbecues in the warmer weather and people picking up the food poisoning when they dine during foreign holidays.
Dr Smith-Palmer said: "We know some of our cases are acquired abroad - people going over and bringing it back from holiday."
However, there is no certainty about the cause of the surge in cases seen in Scotland since mid-June. The infection is not passed easily from person to person and the latest spate of cases seem to be spread across the country and across age groups.
Dr Smith-Palmer said: "Why it has gone up more this year than previous years - there are probably multiple reasons. One could be warmer weather and barbecuing and people being out in the environment."
The spike in numbers is not unprecedented. The average number of cases for the same five weeks covering June and early July between 2011 and 2013 was 840. However, in 2010 the total was slightly higher than this year.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a campaign about campylobacter last month, saying it was the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. It is , however, much less well known than E.coli or salmonella. The body's research found only 28 per cent of people knew about it.
According to the FSA, about four out of five cases of campylobacter poisoning are caused by contact with raw poultry. It is promoting the message not to wash raw chicken, as splashed water droplets can spread the bacteria across hands, clothing, work surfaces and cooking equipment.
The FSA revealed new figures showing 44 per cent of people always wash chicken before cooking it, with many believing they are removing dirt or germs.
People who become ill with symptoms of food poisoning are advised to drink fluids and practice good hygiene, including washing their hands well. The NHS Inform website carries information about when to seek medical advice. Pregnant women are among those who should call their GP, as well as those who have seen blood in their vomit or stools.
Previous estimates suggest that campylobacter causes more than 100 deaths in the UK every year and costs the economy about £900 million.
The FSA is also working with farmers and producers to reduce rates of campylobacter in the national flock.