In January 2018, it was estimated that South Africa had approximately 750 confirmed cases of Listeria, which according to the World Health Organisation is “believed to be the largest ever outbreak of the bacterial disease Listeriosis”. By comparison, the second largest known outbreak of the disease occurred in the United States in 2011, with a total of only 147 reported cases.
So what is Listeria, and why does it matter? Firstly, in its most basic form – Listeria is an organism that is responsible for the contamination of food. According to Kerrigan McCarthy from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases: “Listeriosis is a serious bacterial infection caused by the rod-shaped bacteria listeria monocytogenes. The bacterium is spread when people eat food contaminated with the bacterium. The most common foods to be contaminated are raw or unpasteurised milk as well as soft cheeses, or vegetables, processed foods and ready-to-eat meats and smoked fish products”.
The symptoms associated with Listeriosis generally resemble those of common cold as well as gastroenteritis with varying degrees of severity depending on the immune system of the infected person. In people with already strained immune systems, the bacterial infection can even lead to the development of meningitis and septicaemia. Those most susceptible to the disease are pregnant women, infants and those with compromised immune systems. Infants make up approximately 40% of the infected people as they are often a “high target of this bacterium” (Christian Lindmeier, spokesperson for the World Health Organisation). In pregnant women, the bacterial disease can eventually lead to a miscarriage, stillbirth or premature labour and delivery.
While Listeriosis has been deemed preventable, it has a three week incubation period, which means that it is often impossible to determine the original source of the bacterium, and therefore even harder to prevent. Listeria bacteria is found in the environment meaning that it can be found in water and in soi, therefore,e making the risk of food and animals being contaminated that much higher. However, despite Listeria’s current prevalence – this is not the first time that there has been an outbreak in South Africa. The first documented cases date back to 1977, where 14 cases were recorded in Johannesburg. The majority of the cases reported in the past few months have occurred in the Gauteng region. This can be attributed to the fact that while Gauteng is one of the smallest provinces, it is by far the most densely populated.
So, what is being done countrywide to curtail the Listeriosis outbreak? Amongst other preventative measures undertaken, Listeriosis is now classified as a notifiable disease which means that every case diagnosed needs to be reported and further investigated as it has implications across multiple sectors including agriculture. What can you do to minimise your risk of contracting the disease? In a nutshell, the best preventative methods include maintaining good personal hygiene as well as adhering to safe and hygienic methods of food preparation and storage which are detailed in the World Health Organisation’s “Five Ways to Safer Food” programme, because after all – prevention is better than cure.