PRETORIA, The South African government says it is investigating an outbreak of Listeriosis in the country which has caused the deaths of 36 people so far, says

Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.

He told a media briefing there Tuesday that the source of the outbreak is likely to be a food product consumed by people across all socio-economic groups. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention describes Listeriosis as a serious, but treatable and preventable disease caused by the bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes.

The bacteria is found in soil, water and vegetation. Animal products and fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables can be contaminated from these sources.

Although anyone can get Listeriosis, those at high risk of developing the disease include newborn babies, the elderly, pregnant women, persons with weak immunity such as HIV, diabetes, cancer, chronic liver or kidney disease patients. The age groups most affected are neonates — those in the first 28 days of life — and the age group 15 to 49 years. These two groups comprise 70 per cent of all cases.

From Jan 1 to Nov 29, 2017, a total of 557 laboratory-confirmed Listeriosis cases have been reported across South Africa. Most cases have been reported from Gauteng Province with 345 (62 per cent) cases, followed by Western Cape Province with 71 cases and KwaZulu-Natal Provincewith 37 cases. The remaining 18 per cent of cases is distributed in the remaining six provinces.

Out of 557 cases, we are certain of the final outcome for 70 cases. Of these 70 cases, 36 persons have died, Motsoaledi said.

Of the 557 laboratory confirmed cases, 34 per cent were from the private health facilities, and 66 per cent were from public health facilities.

Given that only 17 per cent of South Africans use private health facilities, this proportion of cases from private health facilities is too high. This indicates that the source of the outbreak is likely to be a food product that is widely distributed and consumed by people across all socio-economic groups, said the Minister.

He added that while Listeriosis is a serious disease, it can be treated with antibiotics. Infection with listeria may result in: flu-like illness with diarrhoea including fever, general body pains, vomiting and weakness; infection of the blood stream which is called septicaemia;

and meningoencephalitis (infection of the brain).

Generally there are four possible sources of Listeriosis — directly at origin for example a farm, a food processing plant, a retail outlet and food preparation at home.

Motsoaledi believed for this particular outbreak the most likely possible source is contaminated food at the origin, for example at farms as well as food processing plants.

However, investigations into the real cause of the outbreak are underway. The source of this outbreak is currently being investigated, and all the stakeholders are cooperating with the investigation led by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Environmental Health Officers are following up diagnosed cases and are visiting their homes to sample food where available.

There are 23 private food tasting laboratories that are accredited by South African National Accreditation System which reports to the Department of Trade and Industry. These laboratories have been requested to provide data on Listeria to date as well as to provide isolates to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

So far, two have voluntarily submitted isolates from food samples.

In addition to this, five food and laboratory associations have also been requested to provide information to their members that have been testing for Listeria. These are the South African Meat Processors Association, South African Milk Processors Association, Milk South Africa, Consumer Goods Council and the National Laboratory Association.