Picture: Twitter/@Noni_M2

Johannesburg - The Department of Health says it is working around the clock to find the source of the listeriosis outbreak which has so far resulted in the deaths of 61 people across the country.

On Monday, Health Minister Aaron Motsolaedi said the director general of the Department of Health has already requested food industry stakeholders to submit details of Listeria-positive food items, environmental swabs and Listeria isolates to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases.

This comes after a chicken sourced from abattoir Sovereign Food tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

"Environmental health practitioners from municipalities and provinces where positive cases are reported should embark on case investigation and trace the source of infection... work has commenced on implementation of plan for the inspection of food processing faculties including packaging at distribution plants for big retailers...," Motsoaledi said.

According to the Department the case of the contaminated chicken came about after environmental health practitioners at the City of Tshwane Municipality in December investigated a patient hospitalised with Listeriosis. 

A chicken sample was collected from the fridge of the patient's home and traced back to the store where it later emerged that the chicken was from the abattoir in question.

Motosoaledi said the abattoir was served with a prohibition notice halting it from operating pending further investigations.

He said the abattoir-related Listeria was subjected to whole genome sequencing but no outbreak strain, identified as ST6, was picked up. He however cautioned that other strains were picked up adding this is the reason why the prohibition notice still stands for public safety.

Gauteng has reported the highest number of Listeria cases at 61% followed by the Wstern Cape at 13% and KwaZulu-Natal at 3%.

As of January 5 this year, up to 727 lab cases have been confirmed.

As a result of the rapid increase in the number of cases, Motsolaedi said the Department of Health introduced a new policy of making Listeriosis notifiable and this was gazetted on December 15 last year.

Meanwhile, Communicable Diesease expert Professor Lucille Blumberg said the current outbreak is largest to emerge from South Africa saying it is very serious but treatable endemic.

Motsoaledi added 65 percent of cases were recorded at public hospitals and 35 percent in the private sector.

"The fact that we have 35 percent cases at private hospitals is a concern. It simply goes to show that Listeriosis is a disease that affects everybody because of the food consumed."

Motsoaledi said public hospitals have enough resources available to manage the endemic. 

While officials are keeping a close eye on the food imports with some African countries having already spoke of intentions to halt meat imports. From South Africa, government said it was also keeping a close eye on Brazil as it imports plenty of meat from there and in the past had found that some faculties in the country were unhygienic.

"It's an ongoing process," officials said.

Listeria is a bacterial disease widely distributed in nature and can be found in soil, water and vegetation and in foods such as meat, seafood and fresh produce.

Motsoaledi has urged health workers and the public at large to pay attention to those vulnerable such as the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and specially pregnant and neonates as they are the most susceptible to contracting the disease.

There is no vaccine for Listeriosis which if undetected quickly can be deadly.

The South African government is struggling to currently find the source from which outcomes from.

To help manage it better as health officials try to find the root cause, Motsolaedi has called on all food companies to comply and for the public to practise good hygiene when handling food.

Politics and Development Hub