The listeriosis crisis goes from bad to worse

The listeriosis crisis goes from bad to worse

New listeriosis figures released by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases on Wednesday paint an even grimmer picture than many realised of South Africa’s listeriosis crisis. 


Listen to the latest Consumerwatch topic below, then read more in the blog.

There have been 872 confirmed cases, of which 164 people have died.

Last week alone, the death toll was 107.

The KZN figures are 62 confirmed cases, of which six have resulted in death. That’s a crisis in its own.

There is a lot of speculation about the source of this crisis, because the science points strongly to it being a single food product or range of products. 

And given that people, both rich and poor, are getting listeriosis all over the country, all the scientists agree that it has to be something which is eaten by people across the socio-economic spectrum.

Food safety expert, Dr Lucia Anelich, says it’s very likely to be a deli meat or range - so polony and vienna sausages, sliced ham, that sort of thing, could well be the source. 

ALSO READ: Listeriosis - a crisis with a mystery source

Ice-cream was the culprit in a major US listeriosis outbreak. 

Given that listeria is killed by heat, ready-to-eat foods that consumers don't cook or heat up before eating are high risk. 

And unlike other bacteria which cause food poisoning, like salmonella and eColi, listeria can survive in temps as low as 4 degrees celcius - in other words, in the fridge, which is what makes it so dangerous. Let’s not forget that it’s proving fatal for 27% of those who get it in South Africa.

So guess what the Jo’burg hotel at which I’ve been attending a two-day listeriosis workshop served up at tea time yesterday? Yep, ham sandwiches!

And then a few people threw a spanner in the works at the workshop by coming up with another theory.

 Food regulation attorney speaks

Janusz Luterek, an attorney specialising in food regulation, said his work led him to believe that the offending product could be traced back to irrigation water which wasn’t properly treated.

“Keep your insurance up to date,” he told the attending food producers, “because when the claims come they will be huge, as in a Boeing 737 crashing and everyone on board dying.”

And a couple of food scientists in the room agreed with Luterek.

Meanwhile, investigators with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases have been sitting with about 60 listeriosis victims to find out what they ate, day by day, during the month before they became symptomatic. This is in an attempt to identify patterns of consumption and indicate what we can eliminate - the NICD’s Dr Juno Thomas said.

“None had eaten smoked fish, for example.”

But awareness of this crisis remains very low among the general population.

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Supermarkets have reported no dip in deli meat sales. When I asked a woman who has run a very successful antenatal clinic for years whether her pregnant clients and those with newborns were paranoid about listeriosis, she said not at all. Given that pregnant women are 20 times more likely to get it than other healthy adults, this ignorance is worrying.

“I haven’t had one question from one mother about the outbreak,” she told me.

“I confess I haven’t educated them about it either I suppose because I assume the outbreak hasn’t affected the social demographic that I deal with.”

When I told her that a third of the cases confirmed in private hospitals involved pregnant women, and that most deaths were newborn babies, she was horrified and vowed to do some research and start to educate her clients.

What to do, as the race continues to pinpoint the source?

I’d avoid deli foods unless you’re going to heat them before eating.

Don’t let cooked food come into contact with raw meat or its juices, avoid pre-cut salads and fruit and veggies.

Many people will eat food infected with listeria and not get sick - it’s pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems - such as HIV-positive people, cancer sufferers, the elderly, and those who’ve had organ transplants who are most at risk.

This is definitely one for the history books - let's just hope the South African listeriosis outbreak mystery is solved very soon.

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