January 14th, 2018 11:02 EST
South Africa Responding to Largest-ever Listeria Outbreak
What is believed to be the largest-ever outbreak of the bacterial disease Listeriosis - or Listeria - has left more than 60 people dead across South Africa, with nearly 750 confirmed cases, the United Nations health agency said Friday.
Listeriosis is a serious, but preventable and treatable disease caused by the bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes, which is found in soil, water, vegetation and some animal faeces. Animal products, including meat and dairy; seafood; and fresh produce, such as fruits and vegetables, can all be contaminated.
"Infants are often a high target of this bacteria," said Christian Lindmeier, spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO), adding that "newborns are about 40 per cent of the infected people."
Having a three-week incubation period makes it difficult to establish the source and thus, tough to prevent.
"You wouldn`t know what you ate three weeks ago - maybe the one particular food that made you sick three or four weeks later - this is the big challenge we face in this situation," the spokesperson elaborated.
South Africans are called upon to practice WHO`s `Five Keys to Safer Food` programme that include washing hands before and often during food preparation; separating raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods; and cooking foods thoroughly, especially meat, poultry, eggs and seafood.
Mr. Lindmeier underscored the importance for those with weakened immune systems - including the elderly and people living with HIV and cancer - and pregnant women, "who are 20 times more likely to get Listeriosis than other healthy adults," to exercise care.
Nearly two-thirds of the reported cases have been from the Gauteng province, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located.
"We have a total now of 748 laboratory-confirmed cases, but then again, this is difficult because many cases may not be even reported," he said, adding that cases have been found in all socio-economic backgrounds since the outbreak was declared on 5 December.
The second largest outbreak of Listeriosis was in 2011, when the United States had a total of 147 reported cases. Prior to that, Italy had a large occurrence in 1997.
South Africa has implemented some measures to stem Listeriosis, such as making it a notifiable disease, whereby every Listeriosis-diagnosed patient must be reported.
"And that`s important because Listeriosis is such a big challenge because it is not just the health sector that is involved, it involves all sectors - the food industry, farming - and to find the source is really difficult simply because the incubation period is so long," Mr. Lindmeier asserted.
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