The latest statistics show that the listeriosis outbreak has now claimed 172 lives and 915 laboratory-confirmed cases have been reported to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases since January 1, 2017, they have said.
Just over 900 cases have been recorded in the country’s laboratories, and of the 164 people that it has killed, half are infants under the age of 1.
But health experts say while this misunderstood disease is a reality, they have cautioned that there is no need to panic as it is not an epidemic.
Dr Kgomotso Mogapi from KwaMqemane Lifestyle and Wellness Centre in Pietermaritzburg said only 10% of the world's population has listeria (listerioris-causing germ) in the gut and most were not ill from it.
Western Cape Department of Health spokesperson Mark van der Heever says while the disease, which can be contracted via food such as milk, meat and vegetables, is a serious one, it can be prevented.
The infection with listeria usually results in gastroenteritis with diarrhoea, vomiting and fever, and symptoms can range from mild to severe.
The national Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja says the first documented outbreak of listeriosis was from August 1977 to April 1978 where 14 cases from Joburg were reported.
Since then sporadic cases have occurred throughout South Africa over a number of years.
However, in July 2017 panic erupted when doctors from neonatal units at Chris Hani Baragwanath and Steve Biko Academic hospitals alerted the NICD about unusually high numbers of babies with listeriosis.
This triggered a review of all cases diagnosed in both public and private hospitals.
According to the department, close to 900 laboratory cases of listeriosis have been confirmed across the country.
In at-risk patients the spread of infection to the nervous system can cause meningitis leading to headaches confusion a stiff neck loss of balance or convulsions.
Individuals with compromised immune system such as HIV-positive people, cancer patients and those with chronic diseases are at most risk, including patients on immuno suppressants.
The World Health Organisation advises on five key points to food safety:
Keep Clean. Wash your hands before handling food and during food preparation.
Separate raw from cooked food. If you are handling or storing raw food, don’t touch cooked food unless you have thoroughly washed your hands and food utensils.
Cook food thoroughly. Never eat half-cooked or uncooked food, especially meat products. Food that does not usually need cooking before eating, needs to be thoroughly washed with clean running water. Families with no source of clean running water need to boil water before domestic use.
Keep food at safe temperatures. Food to be kept cold should be refrigerated and food to be served hot should be served hot.
Use safe water for domestic use at all times and use pasteurised milk products.