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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a “Travel Watch” in response to a yearlong South African Listeria outbreak.

Almost 1,000 people have been sickened and 180 people have died in one of the worst recorded foodborne illness outbreaks in history.

The source of the South African Listeria outbreak was elusive until this week. On Sunday, South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi identified the Tiger Brands Enterprise factory in Polokwane as ground zero for the outbreak. Listeria, however, also was discovered at an Enterprise processed meat factory in Germiston, as well as a Rainbow Food chicken polony factory in the Free State.

According to the South African newspaper The Sunday Times, scientists at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases on Tuesday completed an DNA analysis of the equipment at the Tiger Brand’s Polokwane factory. The number of Listeria samples found was 26.

Officials blamed the delay on finding the sources of the South African Listeria outbreak on the meat-processing industry.

“It is not that we are incompetent, or that we have inadequate resources,” one official told Reuters, but the industry “was not cooperating for months [and] did not bring the samples as requested.”

Motsoaledi warned cross-contamination of other processed meats could have occurred in shops. “Avoid all processed meat products that are sold as ready to eat‚” he said, adding that pregnant women should avoid processed meat “like the plague.”

South African Listeria outbreak

The CDC has issued a “Level 1 Travel Watch” in response to a yearlong South African Listeria outbreak. Almost 1,000 people have been sickened and 180 people have died in one of the worst recorded foodborne illness outbreaks in history. (Pictured: A plate of polony.)

South African Listeria outbreak:
“Polony,” smoked Russians, frankfurters

Tiger Brands is the largest packaged-foods manufacturer in Africa, and its products run the gamut from oatmeal and energy drinks to canned tuna. It is the company’s processed meat – a bologna-like product called “polony,” as well as smoked Russians and frankfurters – that is at the center of this outbreak.

The contaminated processed meat has bred panic not only in South Africa, but also in the neighboring countries of Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana, and Zambia. Those countries have all banned the import of processed meats from South Africa.

In response, Tiger Brands officials on Monday issued a blanket recall of every processed meat produced by Enterprise. In a statement, the company said that it is “extremely concerned” and “wants to find the source or sources of listeriosis, together with government.”

Rainbow Food’s chicken polony factory in Sasolburg tested positive for a different strain of Listeria‚ which also caused illnesses. The company has recalled all of its chicken polony products.

South African Listeria outbreak:
Listeria facts and figures

Listeria’s full name is Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes). It produces listeriosis, a serious illness most commonly contracted by eating food contaminated with the Listeria bacterium.

The CDC estimates that about 1,600 Americans are infected with Listeria on a yearly basis, and about 260 of those victims die. Because listeriosis can escalate quickly and become dangerous, those infected generally require hospitalization.

Listeria can infect anyone, but those most susceptible to serious complications are:

  • pregnant women
  • babies
  • elderly people
  • people with weakened immune systems.

As Motsoaledi’s warning indicates, pregnant women need to be particularly vigilant about avoiding Listeria. The bacterium can spread to the fetus and result in miscarriage, stillbirth, or infection of the baby. The CDC estimates that 20 percent of affected pregnancies end in loss of the fetus, and 3 percent end in stillbirth.

Pregnant women typically experience only fever and other flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue and muscle aches. For others, symptoms can include headaches, a stiff neck, disorientation, convulsions, and light sensitivity. Hospitalization is generally required.

Like many other foodborne pathogens, the Listeria bacterium begins to grow in the digestive system. However, Listeria can spread to the bloodstream, affecting major organs and the central nervous system, including the brain. The incubation period can be anywhere from three days to two months, although symptoms usually occur within the first 30 days.

If Listeria spreads to the nervous system, it can result in bacterial meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord.

South African Listeria outbreak:
CDC travel health notices

The CDC issues travel health notices to inform travelers and health-care professionals about issues related to specific destinations. Notices are generally issued when there are disease outbreaks, natural disasters, or other conditions that could affect the health of travelers.

The definitions of the three types of health notices are:

Travel Watch
The Level 1 notice is a reminder to travelers to follow the “usual precautions” for the destination. The risk to travelers is described as the “usual baseline risk or slightly above baseline risk for destination and limited impact to the traveler.”

Travel Alert
The Level 2 notice urges travelers to “follow enhanced precautions for this destination.” There is an “increased risk in defined settings or associated with specific risk factors; certain high-risk populations may wish to delay travel to these destinations.”

Travel Warning
The Level 3 notice is simple and to the point: “Avoid all non-essential travel to this destination.” Travelers are at a “high risk” of experiencing harm to their health.