Pregnant women are approximately 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis. Pregnant women typically experience only fever and other flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue and muscle aches. However, infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery or life-threatening infection of the new-born, such as meningitis.
This is according to Dr Lucia Anelich, who is a technical expert and international consultant on projects for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations and who also conducts projects for the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
According to Anelich, as at 12 January 2018, there have been 748 reported cases of listeriosis in the country, with 67 of these resulting in deaths. Neonates remain the most affected by the outbreak, which she dubs as the “worst documented listeriosis outbreak in global history”.
Following pregnant women as likely candidates for contracting the illness, are elderly people (over 65 years old) and as well as people with weakened immune systems. These people include those with organ transplants, undernourished people, those suffering from diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer and other auto-immune diseases.
“Once the organism has left the gut, it migrates to the nervous system where it can cause many symptoms as well as inflammation of the membranes around the brain (meningitis). It may also lead to a serious blood infection called septicaemia, both of which can cause significant complications, especially where immune systems are weak. It is vital that medical care is sought as soon as possible when typical listeriosis symptoms appear,” Anelich explains.
Symptoms of infection for people other than pregnant women can include a headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions in addition to fever and muscle aches. Anelich says that while it is not yet clear where the outbreak stems from, it has at least been established that a major percentage (91%) of clinical isolates belonging to the same sequence type i.e. ST 6.
“This means that these isolates originate from a single source, most likely a food product on the market or a series of food products produced in the same manufacturing environment,” she explains further.
She adds that Listeriosis is mainly associated with consumption of contaminated Ready-To-Eat (RTE) foods, such as deli meats, soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk, raw sprouts, prepackaged salads and ice cream (though not common).
Despite the worst case scenarios that can come from being infected with the illness, she maintains that the illness is normally treatable. “Antibiotics i.e. ampicillin works in most cases,” she says. However, taking multi-vitamins and similar supplements will not work to prevent listeriosis, she adds. “The best ways to prevent infection are to cook foods thoroughly (where practical) before consumption; wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly; refrigerate perishable foods to below 4 degrees Celsius and stick to Use By dates; wash hands, kitchen utensils and kitchen work surfaces very well; do not cross-contaminate; eat cooked and refrigerated food quickly (within two days) and reheat before consumption. If a food cannot be cooked and it falls in the list of foods that have been implicated in other listeriosis cases, the best is to avoid eating them altogether if one falls into the more susceptible groups; at least until this outbreak is over,” she says in conclusion.