16 Mar

What’s Behind the Deadliest Outbreak of Listeriosis

South Africa is struggling to contain a deadly outbreak of listeriosis that’s been declared the world’s worst on record.

More than 900 people were infected over 14 months before the government identified a meat-processing factory owned by Tiger Brands Ltd., the continent’s biggest packaged-food company, as the source.

With at least 183 dead — many of them infants and children — manufacturers have issued mass recalls for ready-to-eat sausages and other meat products singled out by officials as potentially dangerous.

The disease is caused by high numbers of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium found in soil, water, plants and animal feces, which usually spreads to humans through contaminated food.

Cooking kills listeria, but it can multiply in the refrigerator. High-risk foods include deli meat, soft cheeses and cold-smoked fish — really, anything that can sit in a refrigerator for a long time and is eaten without further cooking.

Symptoms of listeriosis include fever, muscle pain and a stiff neck. While there are two types of the disease, the one to worry about is invasive listeriosis. It’s treatable if diagnosed early.

Nearly 1,000 cases have been identified since the start of 2017. However, the figures could be higher because health workers weren’t required to report cases until December last year, after the outbreak was confirmed.

According to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, investigations started in earnest after doctors from two hospitals alerted the National Institute of Communicable Diseases to unusually high numbers of babies with listeriosis in July 2017.

The institute spent the following months gathering and analyzing data from across the country. The data showed that the outbreak started in June. A strain of listeria known as sequence-type six, or ST6, was identified as the driver of the outbreak.

The outbreak has been linked to a factory in the northeastern city of Polokwane owned by Tiger Brands’s Enterprise unit, after samples of ST6 were found at the facility. One of the likely culprits is a South African product called polony — a cheap and highly processed meat product that’s popular in lower-income households.

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