On Tuesday morning last week, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced that 36 people have died following an outbreak of Listeriosis. Approximately 557 cases have been reported, with the majority coming from Gauteng province. Motsoaledi said the cause of the outbreak was currently being investigated and urged all South Africans to wash their hands and keep food at safe temperatures.
Whilst we cannot argue with the handwashing advice given by the Minister, we thought it would be a good idea to round up some facts about Listeriosis, and to give you some more information on how to keep yourself and your family healthy this festive season.
What is Listeriosis? Listeriosis is a bacterial infection most commonly caused by the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. This bacteria is found in soil and water and some animals, including poultry and cattle. It can be present in unpasteurised milk and foods made from unpasteurised milk. It can also live in food processing plants and can contaminate a variety of processed meats.
Important to note is that Listeria - unlike many other germs - can grow in cold temperatures (such as the fridge) so keeping food at a safe temperature alone is not enough to ensure food safety. Listeria is however killed by cooking and pasteurisation.
Whilst we all have different levels of risk aversion, I think it’s safe to say no-one really wants to get sick, especially in the holiday season. The flu-like symptoms of Listeria include fever, a stiff neck, confusion, general weakness and vomiting (sometimes preceded by diarrhoea) and usually resolve themselves within seven days.
However, there are people for whom Listeria poses a much higher risk than just flu and a bit of vomiting. Those at risk include newborns, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with compromised immunity (such as those with HIV, diabetes, cancer, chronic liver or kidney disease). For people with a weak immune system, Listeriosis can lead to meningitis or septicaemia. And for pregnant women it can result in a miscarriage or stillbirth, premature delivery, or meningitis in the newborn, leading to permanent disability.
Important to note here is that early diagnosis is critical; antibiotics given promptly can cure the infection and, in pregnant women, can prevent infection of the fetus, so if you are very ill with fever or have stiff neck, consult your doctor immediately.
Forbes.com recently released an article in which they listed the 5 foods most likely to be contaminated with Listeria, and what you can do to minimise the risks associated with these foods:
- Canned and raw seafood: only buy seafood from reputable suppliers, and make sure that it’s cooked thoroughly before you eat it.
- Any fruit that's sprayed or washed with water containing listeria picked up from the soil.Wash fruit as soon as you buy it with an antibacterial fruit and vegetable wash or, in a pinch, with antibacterial dish soap. Wash it again before you eat it, or better yet, peel it. But wash it even if you do peel it.
- Foods that are refrigerated for long periods of time, but especially soft cheeses such as brie and camembert. This is because refrigerating food does not prevent the growth of listeria. Cook ready to eat foods that have been refrigerated.
- Preserved and smoked meats, such as hot dogs, sausages, salami, pate, and all manner of preserved meats. Not much you can do about this one except buy from reputable suppliers or if you are in the “at risk” category, either cook thoroughly before eating, or avoid altogether.
- Root vegetables and vegetables that grow in and on the soil, as they can come in contact with listeria in the soil, so wash all veggies thoroughly and peel wherever appropriate.
Here are a few more ways you can prevent yourself from getting Listeriosis:
- Avoid unpasteurised milk, and foods that contain unpasteurised milk.
- Practice good hygiene in the kitchen. Wash your hands regularly, and make sure cutting boards, cutlery and crockery are cleaned properly, both before and after handling raw foods.
- Thoroughly cook animal foods such as meat, poultry or fish. Rather overcook than undercook.
- Keep an eye on the expiry dates of perishable foods. Consume as soon as possible.
If you are not in the “at risk” category, and you are diagnosed with Listeriosis, here are some at home remedies that can help you feel more comfortable:
- Plenty of clear fluids such as water and tea
- The BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apples (grated), toast) and other bland foods that won’t irritate the stomach
- Bed rest
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If you think that you or someone you know may have Listeria, or to find out more about this desease, contact The National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) on 011-386-2000.