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Breakthrough Reported in South Africa’s Worst Listeria Outbreak

A worker checks empty shelves after removing processed meat products at a Pick n Pay Store in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 5, 2018, amid the country's worst listeria outbreak on record.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a major breakthrough in efforts to contain South Africa’s longest and largest recorded listeria outbreak.

The current outbreak of listeriosis in South Africa began more than one year ago in January 2017. As of March 12, the WHO has recorded 978 lab-confirmed cases of this foodborne disease, including 183 deaths.

WHO food safety expert Peter Ben Embarek says it is very difficult to investigate outbreaks of listeriosis because the disease has a very long incubation period. He says it can take several weeks before people show any symptoms, get sick and are hospitalized.

“Two weeks ago, food was identified as the primary source of this large outbreak. It is a meat, ready-to-eat meat product, a type of sausage very commonly consumed in South Africa and in the region - Polony product. Since then, recall of the incriminated product has been initiated both in South Africa, but also in 15 countries that have imported this product from South Africa,” he said.

Embarek said the WHO is facilitating the exchange of information between South Africa and countries who have imported this contaminated product. He says it is important to recall the sausage and remove it from the shelves to prevent further cases from occurring.

Now that the source of this foodborne disease has been identified, he told VOA he expects the number of new cases to quickly drop.

“With regard to the case fatality rate in this outbreak, among the cases where they have been able to follow them and see the outcome of their disease, it is about 27 percent. And it is within the norms. Listeriosis outbreak has a case fatality rate of between 20 and 30 percent. It is a very severe foodborne disease” he said.

Embarek said listeriosis can be effectively treated with antibiotics if caught promptly, particularly in the case of high-risk populations, such as newborn babies, pregnant women and the elderly.

He says the WHO is not recommending any restrictions on travel or trade.