CAPE TOWN — Listeriosis is an infection usually caused by the germ Listeria monocytogenes. People generally become sick after they eat food contaminated by the bacteria. This disease most commonly affects pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Listeria can cause fever and diarrhea, similar to other foodborne germs. Listeriosis symptoms include fever, muscle pain, septicemia and meningitis. The incubation period is usually one to two weeks but can vary between a few days up to 70 days. In pregnant women, it can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection in the newborn.
Listeriosis in South Africa became an outbreak at the beginning of 2017. And until July of 2018, 1,060 cases were reported and 216 people died of the disease. Three main regions were affected: Gauteng (59 percent), Western Cape (12 percent) and KwaZulu-Natal (7 percent).
Origin of the Outbreak
The Ministry of Health traced the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa to a widely consumed processed meat product called “polony.” They found that 91 percent of the strains belonged to Listeria monocytogenes sequence Type 6. Polony and the three products made in the same plant were distributed to 15 countries in Africa and all had to be recalled. All products tested positive for the strain.
These ready-to-eat processed meat products came from the Tiger Brands plant in Polokwane — an Enterprise Foods production facility. According to the NICD, a shortage in a solution used to test for the Listeria bacteria lead to a delay in the results on the factory by two weeks. The factory has since been shut down, but the food had already been distributed to vendors by the time the results of the tests came back.
Public Health Response
A press conference was held on March 4, 2018 to announce the source of the disease. National authorities took measures to limit infections and issue safety recall notices, compliance notices, measures related to the exportation of implicated products and the risk of communication with vulnerable groups. The South African Development Community Health Ministers held a meeting to share information and to enhance their preparedness and response to such a disease if the need should arise again. The agency is working on strengthening food safety and surveillance systems.
As a result of the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa, 900 environmental health practitioners from every district have been trained to carry out factory inspections food safety systems and testing factories for Listeria. More than 150 facilities that produce ready-to-eat meat have been inspected. More than 5,800 tons of foods have been recalled and destroyed to stop the spread of the disease.
While it is clear that South Africa’s food regulations and security measures were not ready to deal with the threat of Listeria, learning from this outbreak by installing and enforcing strict health measures, making sure that food plants maintain a level of sanitation and training more professionals to prevent this situation from happening again is a step in the right direction. As of September 3, 2018, the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa was declared over. But the country has to remain vigilant in its mission to ensure that all produced food is safe for consumption.
– Michela Rahaim