In January, officials in South Africa announced that the total number of people affected by a listeria outbreak had risen to an alarming 767, the biggest listeria outbreak to date.
The outbreak has affected nine provinces but is concentrated in the northeastern regions of the country, with two-thirds of cases centered in Pretoria, Johannesburg, and other cities in the Gauteng province.
Listeria is a bacteria that causes foodborne illness in anyone who consumes contaminated foods or beverages. Once inside the body, the disease can wreak havoc on the central nervous system, producing toxins that damage cells. Other symptoms include gastrointestinal distress, muscle pain, and fever.
In severe cases, listeria can lead to death. The outbreak in South Africa has already claimed 81 lives, with South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Disease estimating a 34% death rate among traced patients, compared to a worldwide average of 20-25%.
Pregnant women, infants, senior citizens, and those with compromised immune systems who are exposed to listeria are especially at risk of infection and death. Symptoms can appear as late as 30 days after exposure to the bacteria.
Although officials have not yet publicly named the source of the outbreak, they recently announced that they have identified a food outlet as a possible culprit. Common sources of listeria such as deli meats and other ready-to-eat foods have been the subject of speculation. With no definitive cause known as yet, rumors abound and South Africans are beginning to panic.
Until the outbreak ends, officials are instructing South Africans to cook any raw meat, dairy, or seafood products thoroughly, and to avoid unpasteurized foods and beverages.
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