Listeria death toll may be higher as some SADC countries unable to test for disease

Listeria death toll may be higher as some SADC countries unable to test for disease
Listeria death toll may be higher as some SADC countries unable to test for disease
Image: 123RF/ Vitaliy Vodolazskyy

The death toll from the listeriosis outbreak could be much higher as countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region‚ do not have the testing and monitoring to detect listeriosis cases.

The disease is not a notifiable disease across Southern African countries‚ meaning doctors are not reporting each case to a centralised authority.

On Thursday in Johannesburg‚ Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and SADC health ministers and ambassadors held an emergency high level inter- ministerial meeting to discuss the world’s largest listeriosis outbreak that started in South Africa.

Many of the countries attending the meeting import Tiger Brands’ Enterprise polony and cold meat products. The Tiger Brands Polokwane factory had the ST 6 strain of listeria‚ responsible for 91% of all South African listeriosis patients‚ in 26 places.

In South Africa‚ there have been 967 confirmed cases and 183 deaths from listeriosis. But there has only been one patient in the rest of Southern Africa identified with listeriosis despite many countries importing implicated products.

Namibia recorded a patient on March 12.

In the high level meeting‚ the health department gave advice and scientific expertise on the disease.

Motsoaledi also said he didn’t think there would only be one case outside of South Africa.

Motsoaledi said: “It did arise in the meeting that countries might not be able to detect something like this.” He said few also had the ability to do DNA testing of listeriosis strains and South Africa had offered expertise if needed.

He said there may be multiple reasons for the lack of cases outside of South Africa. One was that South Africa had the largest HIV burden in the world and HIV may make people more susceptible to listeriosis.

The disease only affects pregnant women‚ the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. Motsoaledi said: “We don’t know role incidence of HIV and Aids in this whole thing. We have the highest prevalence of HIV [in the world]. All those things still going to be discussed.”

Swaziland's Minister of Health‚ Sibongile Ndlela-Simelane‚ said her country had not detected cases but "appreciated the capacity of South Africa to help identify deaths and cases". She suggested Swaziland was not able to measure cases.

Many officials had high praise for South Africa despite the implicated products originating in the country.

Mauritius high commission second secretary Jevin Pillay said: “The SADC is a big family. We have always trusted our partners. Mauritius wishes to congratulate South Africa for being so proactive on this.”

Motsoaledi said that 35% of listeriosis patients were using the private sector when treated. About 65% of patients were seen in public hospitals and he was exceptionally pleased that it was public sector hospital doctors that picked up cases in the middle of last year and notified the National Institute for Communicable Diseases about a possible outbreak.

He also said that although the Constitution gave the power to local municipalities to do health inspections of food processing factories‚ many weren’t sophisticated enough to challenge large corporations. He said small municipalities were not matched to the “firepower of well advanced factories”.

He wants the national department to employ health inspectors‚ known as environmental health practitioners.

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