Latest listeriosis death stats – but still no sign of ‘culprit’

12 January 2018 - 14:40 By Wendy Knowler
A 3D illustration of the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, which causes listeriosis. File image.
A 3D illustration of the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, which causes listeriosis. File image.
Image: 123rf/ Kateryna Kon

Another 31 cases of listeriosis have been confirmed since January 3‚ bringing the total number since the beginning of last year to 748‚ the National Institute Communicable Diseases (NICD) revealed on Friday.

The death toll has risen from 61 to 67‚ and still the source of the outbreak - said to be the worst on record in global history - remains unknown.

About 40 percent of those who have died were babies less than four weeks old. Pregnant woman are 20 times more likely to contract listeriosis from eating food contaminated with the Listeria pathogen than other healthy adults.

The NICD reported that “final data” was only available for 21% of the 748 confirmed cases of listeriosis‚ of which 42% had died.

Listeriosis’s average mortality rate is between 20% and 25%.

Those with confirmed listeriosis were patients in state and private hospitals - roughly two thirds in state hospitals (65%) and a third (35%) in private hospitals.

The NICD has warned that because of “recent challenges” in state laboratory information system data since mid-November “and a possible lag in reporting as a result of the public holidays”‚ case numbers for the last six weeks of 2017 were likely to change on a daily basis "and trends must be interpreted with caution”.

The NICD has established via genome sequencing that in most cases‚ the listeria came from a single source‚ thought to be a particular product or range of products.

Pretoria-based microbiologist and food safety expert Dr Lucia Anelich said the “culprit” was most likely a product that is eaten by consumers across the country and “extremely often”.

Listeriosis symptoms develop any time between two and 30 days after eating food contaminated with the listeria pathogen. In pregnant women they include mild flu-like symptoms‚ headaches‚ muscle aches‚ fever‚ nausea and vomiting‚ and if the infection spreads to the nervous system it can cause stiff neck‚ disorientation‚ or convulsions.

High on the list of foods known to have caused other listeriosis outbreaks are ready-to-eat foods which consumers don’t cook or heat before eating‚ primarily deli meats - slices of ham‚ polony‚ cooked chicken and the like.

“Deli meats are obviously consumed by a wide variety of people in the population‚ whether it’s a cheaper cut or a more expensive one‚” Anelich says.

"But other products might also be just as implicated‚ and it’s really difficult to point a finger in a specific direction‚ considering we have absolutely no other leads at this stage.”


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