Listerosis: A public health response

The Municipal Health Section of Eden District Municipality (Eden DM) has the responsibility to ensure that any food product sold (produced in the area or imported) within its jurisdiction is safe and fit for human consumption. Ensuring food safety involves/ constitutes the following:

  • Monitoring and evaluation of food premises, vehicles used for the transportation of food, to ensure they comply with relevant legislation;
  • Sampling and analyses of food products; and
  • Presenting Health and Hygiene education sessions in the formal and informal food sectors, as well as to the general public.

Eden DM regards food safety as a high priority; therefore any food-borne disease outbreak is taken very seriously. The outbreak of Listeriosis in South Africa has prompted Municipal Health Section to increase monitoring and evaluation of food premises, as well as our sampling programmes.

During the outbreak, Eden District municipality intensified their food monitoring programme at food outlets to ensure public safety and to date, only one of the samples analysed tested positive. The necessary actions were taken to remove suspected food source from the food chain to prevent the spread of disease.

What is Listeriosis?

Listeriosis is a bacterial disease that is caused by Listeria Monocytogenes, which is mostly commonly found in soil, water and contaminated food sources. According to the National Institute for Communicable Disease (NICD), a total of 767 laboratory-confirmed Listeriosis cases have been reported since 01 January 2017 to 16 January 2018 of which 81 people died.

Most cases have been reported from Gauteng Province (60%, 462/767) followed by Western Cape (13%, 101/767) and KwaZulu-Natal (7%, 55/767) provinces. Cases have been diagnosed in both public and private healthcare sectors. Within the Eden region, at total of six laboratory-confirmed Listeriosis cases have been reported of which two people died. 

Who is at risk?

Pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with underlying immunocompromising conditions such as HIV, diabetes, cancer and chronic liver or kidney disease are the population most susceptible to Listeria Monocytogenes infections.

How can Listeriosis be transmitted?

The risk of infection increases with the consumption of contaminated food products such as raw or unpasteurised milk and soft cheeses, vegetables, processed foods, ready-to-eat meats and smoked fish products.

What are the symptoms related to Listeriosis?

When contaminated food products are consumed the following symptoms may present itself, namely; fever, myalgia, malaise and sometimes nausea and diarrhoea. For those populations most at risk, the spread of infections can cause meningitis, leading to headaches, confusion, and stiff neck, loss of balance or convulsions.

Can Listeriosis be treated?

Gastroenteritis associated with Listeriosis infection does not usually require treatment, but when diarrhoea is severe, it is best to seek medical assistance. Severe gastroenteritis can cause dehydration, which can be very dangerous, especially in babies.

Meningitis or septicaemia due to Listeria infections can be life-threatening, but prompt treatment with the correct antibiotics can save lives. Therefore it is advised that if any individual, especially newborns or those with immunocompromised conditions exhibit/show any of the symptoms mentioned above, seek medical assistance.

Can Listeriosis be prevented?

It is important to remember that prevention is always better than cure, but only if the proper preventative steps are taken. Listeria is destroyed by conventional cooking, so freshly cooked foods are safe to eat. Listeria is one of those bacteria that can grow in refrigerated foods already contaminated; therefore it is helpful to ensure that the temperature setting of your fridge is kept below 4°C and the deep freeze below – 18°C.

If you suspect that you or any member of your family are at high risk to listeriosis it is best to avoid the following food products, namely:

  • Raw or unpasteurised milk, or any products made from unpasteurised milk;
  • Soft cheeses (e.g. feta, goat, Brie);
  • Foods from delicatessen counters (e.g. prepared salads, cold meats) that have not been heated/reheated adequately;
  • Refrigerated pâtés,

The following hygiene practices can be followed to reduce the risk of listeria infection as well as other food-borne illnesses.

  • Thaw ready-to-eat frozen foods in the fridge or microwave. Do not thaw food at room temperature
  • Separate raw and cooked food products to prevent cross-contamination (Always pack pre-cooked or cooked food products on the top shelves in the fridge and raw products on the lower shelves)
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and clean water before the preparation of food.
  • Wash cutting boards and knives after handling raw food to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Thoroughly cook raw food, especially meat products.
  • Keep cooked food products at 65°C or above and cold food products at or below 5°C.
  • Cooked foods must not be stored at/ cooled down at room temp, rather store in a fridge
  • Thoroughly reheat food until steaming hot
  • Avoid the use of unpasteurised milk.
  • Do not buy or eat food products, especially refrigerated foods that are past their ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates.
  • If you buy ready-to-eat, hot foods, make sure it’s served steaming hot.
  • It is best avoid salad bars (pre-prepared salads) in restaurants, supermarkets or delicatessens.

Did you know!!

Immunocompromised: means that your immune system is impaired or weakened by drugs or an illness.

Myalgia, is pain in a muscle or a group of muscles.

Malaise, is a general feeling of discomfort or unease whose exact cause is difficult to identify.

For any further information, contact 

Mr J H Compion – Senior Manager: Municipal Health and Environmental Services on 044 803 1525 or 082 803 5161.

Mr Haemish Herwels – Municipal Health:  Assistant Chief Langeberg & Hessequa on 028 713 2438 or 083 678 6545.  

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