What’s Behind the World Deadliest Outbreak of Listeriosis

The world has recorded the deadliest outbreak of listeriosis in South Africa. 900 people and still counting has been declared infected over a time period of 14 months before Tiger brands, a meat processing company was identified as the source.

It is Africa’s biggest packaged food company – with more than 183 people dead mostly infants and children, Tiger brands have issued massive recalls of ready to eat sausages and other meat-line products singled out by regulatory agencies as potentially dangerous.

1. What is listeriosis?

Listeriosis is a bacterial disease caused by high numbers of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium found majorly in water, soil, animal feces and plants, mode of transmission is usually through contaminated food.

Listeria can multiply in the refrigerator but it is killed by cooking. Potential high-risk foods include cold smoked fish, deli meat, cold suya, soft cheese – basically anything that sits for long in the refrigerator for a long time and is eaten without been further processed with heat.

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Symptoms of Listeriosis

As observed in infected patients, stiff neck, muscle pain, fever. There exist two forms of this disease, but the deadlier is the invasive listeriosis. Fortunately, it’s treatable when diagnosed early.

2. How did South Africa respond?

In 2017, about 1,000 cases were recorded, however, these, figures are deemed inaccurate as health workers were only required to report listeriosis until December last year after the outbreak of listeriosis was confirmed.

According to South Africa Health minister, an investigation started immediately the National Institute of Communicable Diseases was alerted by two hospitals, reporting an unusually high number of babies with listeriosis in July 2017.

The institute gathered data from across the country and analyzed. The report showed that the outbreak started in June. And a particular strain known as sequence-type six, or ST6 has been implicated as the driver of the outbreak.

3. Who or what is to blame?

Tiger brand located in the northeastern city of Polokwane has been identified as the origin of the outbreak, after analysis identified samples of ST6 at the facility. Polony (a cheap and highly processed meat product that’s popular in lower-income households), produced in South Africa has been identified as the chief driver of the outbreak.

Tiger brands make polony as well as RCL foods Ltd, which has taken a drastic step in curbing the spread by recalling polony products and closed a factory as a precaution. Polony is not the only implicate food product as the South African Government has instructed her citizen to stay away from all types and brands of chilled, ready-to-eat meat products.

4. What does Tiger Brands say?

While the company confirmed the discovery of ST6 at the facility in Polokwane, it said however that there exists no evidence of contamination in its products. But for precautionary measures, the both the Polokwane plant and the Enterprise factory has been closed.

In addition to recalling all Enterprise chilled, ready-to-eat processed meat products. It further stated that it wants to be seen as actively finding a solution to the outbreak of listeriosis which has escalated to a National crisis.

The company has hired a team of scientific experts to identify the cause of the outbreak. It also highlighted the need for new industry-wide standards to ensure adherence to best regulatory standards and prevent a re-occurrence.

4. What else is being done?

A deep cleaning process is being carried out in both factories. Sellers across the country have been asked to stop selling the Enterprise products. Consumers have been asked to return already bought products to the stores to prevent further contamination and receive a refund.

A South African lawyer, Richard Spoor is working with a Seattle-based firm Marler Clark on instituting a class-action suit to be filed on behalf of listeriosis victims.

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6. Who is most affected?

Elderly people, pregnant women, people whose immune system has been compromised, weakened or underdeveloped such as those living with HIV/AIDS are most likely to contract listeriosis. Furthermore, there can be a transmission from a pregnant mother to her baby causing stillbirths.

Unfortunately, most products recalled are very popular household foods in South Africa, and there are limited alternatives. School lunches, “Viennas” (a local term for hot-dog-style sausages) often contain polony

7. How does this Outbreak compare to others?

The present outbreak in South Africa is deadlier than the second-largest documented outbreak of listeriosis, reported in the U.S in 2011; a total of 147 cases was reported.

Listeria outbreaks produce just a couple of cases, this is so because the source is usually identified very quickly as reported by World Health Organization scientist Peter Ben Embarek.

While listeria has been reported throughout the world, a study reported in 2014 published that they cause fewer cases of disease than other foodborne pathogens like salmonella. However, invasive listeriosis has a mortality rate of 20 to 30 percent, according to the WHO.