Africa should prepare for deadly listeriosis outbreaks, however rare

Posted on December 12, 2023

Researchers say African public health systems should put measures in place to detect and report Listeria infections. Although this serious infection is not a big problem in Africa yet, a review of the evidence suggests conditions in many countries are ripe for an outbreak.

Listeriosis is a food-borne disease that can result in invasive infections such as meningitis and bacteremia. It is caused by a pathogen known as Listeria monocytogenes. 

Dr Thulani Sibanda, a food scientist at UP’s Department of Consumer and Food Sciences, says that the risk of human exposure is high with more Africans consuming processed foods.

Dr Thulani Sibanda

He says the typical high-risk foods are ready-to-eat, cold foods consumed without cooking. This includes “viennas”, “russians” and other processed sausages and cold meats that are usually stored for long periods. Even with refrigeration, these foods can be risky for the vulnerable. 

“There are these kinds of fast foods that people eat a lot of, like polonies and cheese,” says Dr Sibanda. “If you know you are probably at risk, those are the foods you should avoid or consume foods served hot.”

Dr Sibanda says, “Unfortunately, most African countries are neglecting food-borne challenges, focusing instead on diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria.”

This is a problem since people living with some of these diseases, as well as Africa's growing elderly populations and those with anaemia, are the most vulnerable to severe symptoms and death.

Rapid urbanisation, warmer temperatures due to climate change, and interruptions to the cold chain through electricity shortages are additional threats. 

“Public health systems in general need to be alert to this,” says Dr Sibanda, adding that consumers need to be educated about the risks. “Our survey shows that even the terms 'listeria' or 'listeriosis' are not commonly known in Africa." 

He says African countries should have systems in place for early detection and reporting of Listeriosis. They must also look at food safety standards, especially for ready-to-eat foods.

Currently, South Africa is the only African country with the necessary systems in place. “If there is a probable suspected case of listeriosis, South African doctors are obliged to report it to the Department of Health,” says Sibanda.

Unfortunately, many cases remain undetected because the symptoms are similar to other infections. 

Although listeriosis cases and outbreaks are generally still rare in Africa, Sibanda says we must be better prepared because bacterial foodborne diseases have the highest fatality rates.

- Author ScienceLink

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