Listeria Outbreak in South Africa

By | 14 March 2018

What exactly is Listeriosis?

Listeriosis is food poisoning caused by eating foods contaminated with the Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes) bacterium. –Web MD

Picture: National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

 How do you get infected with Listeria?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO):  “Listeriosis affects a variety of animals. Foodborne infection in humans occurs through the consumption of contaminated foods, particularly unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, vegetables and prepared meat products such as pâté. Unlike most foodborne pathogens, Listeria multiplies readily in refrigerated foods that have been contaminated”.What are the symptoms?


The Department of Health identifies the following indicators as symptoms of listeria infection:

. Flu like illness with diarrhea including fever, general body pains, vomiting and weakness. 

. Infection of the blood stream which is called septiceamia.

. Meningoencephalitis (infection of the brain)

 How is it diagnosed?

Listeriosis is diagnosed through a laboratory test whereby bacteria cultures placed on a petri dish grow Listeria monocytogenes from body tissue or fluids such as blood, spinal fluid or the placenta.

Who is most vulnerable to be affected by a Listeriosis outbreak?

The Centre for Diseases Control Prevention (CDC) identifies individuals who are at high risk of developing severe disease as newborns, the elderly, pregnant women, persons with weak immunity such as HIV, diabetes, cancer, chronic liver or kidney disease.

How serious is a listeria infection?

“Listeriosis is usually a mild illness for pregnant women, but it causes severe disease in the fetus or newborn baby. Some people with Listeria infections, most commonly adults 65 years and older and people with weakened immune systems, develop severe infections of the bloodstream (causing sepsis) or brain (causing meningitis or encephalitis.)Listeria infections can sometimes affect other parts of the body, including bones, joints, and sites in the chest and abdomen”- Centre for Diseases Control Prevention (CDC)

The South African Case 

“The latest figures for South Africa’s outbreak of listeriosis indicate that nearly 1‚000 patients have been infected, and that there have been at least 176 deaths caused by the food-borne bacteria listeria since January 2017. Most of those who succumbed (78) were infants less than 28 weeks old, and Gauteng has been hardest hit by the listeriosis outbreak”.-HuffPostSA


Experts have narrowed down the source of this severe outbreak which has claimed the lives of many to cold meats including polony, vienna and sausages found in certain packaged good at mainly two factories in the country.

How can a listeria infection be prevented?

  1. Watch what you eat

The following foods that have a high risk of carrying listeriosis:

  • Raw or unpasteurized milk, or dairy products that contain unpasteurized milk
  • Soft cheeses (e.g. feta, goat, Brie)
  • Ready-to-eat meats and foods from delicatessen counters that have not been heated/reheated adequately
  • Refrigerated pâtés and smoked fish products
  1. Check the fridge

Unlike most other foodborne pathogens, listeria monocytogenes can survive and even thrive in the fridge.

To prevent this, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) recommend dropping fridge temperatures to below 4°C and freezer temperatures below -18°C.

It’s common sense, but it’s also recommended to make sure uncooked meats and seafood are stored separately from other foods.

Picture: 7 Myths About Washing Your Produce

  1. Wash up

Listeria can be spread by contact with contaminated hands, equipment and countertops.

To prevent this, wash hands, knives, countertops, and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.

Since fruit and vegetables can also be contaminated, make sure you wash them thoroughly before eating. – The Citizen

What if I have already eaten the recalled products?

  • If you have eaten the products, do not worry…
  • If you are not pregnant and do not feel sick, there is no need to panic
  • If you experience any discomfort or similar symptoms, go to a health facility where you will receive counselling and more information about the symptoms of Listeriosis and instructed to return if you develop any of those symptoms within 2 months of eating the recalled product.- WHO