The World Health Organization is coordinating efforts among 16 African countries in an attempt to contain the world’s largest ever Listeria outbreak as officials in Namibia try to discern whether a sick person in that country contracted listeriosis from processed meat imported from South Africa.
In another development this week, officials in Mozambique reported they have incinerated 55 metric tons of assorted processed meat — referred to in the region as polony — imported from Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken facilities in South Africa. Laboratory tests have shown that both companies’ production plants are contaminated.
Almost 200 people are confirmed to have died in the outbreak and almost 1,000 have been confirmed sick with listeriosis, according to South Africa’s health department.
Company officials with Rainbow doubled down on denials that the foodborne pathogen is not present in their plant, directly challenging South Africa’s Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi. Rainbow, known as RCL Foods, claims the problem is in the Enterprise plant in Polokwane. South Africa’s health department says the results of independent lab tests paid for by RCL do not change the situation.
“The real point is that listeria monocytogenes were found in their (RLC Foods) Wolwehoek factory, which has not changed,” health department spokesperson Popo Maja told South African media outlets.
“We made it clear … that we only had results of whole genome sequencing for the Enterprise Foods Polokwane production facility. We further clarify that for the RCL Foods Wolwehoek production facility in Sasolburg, we only have results of culture so far and that 14 percent of the environmental samples tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. We are awaiting whole genome sequencing results early next week.”
In Namibia, where traceback efforts are ongoing, public health officials told allafrica.com on Tuesday that they have determined a man who fell ill two weeks ago was infected by Listeria-contaminated Vienna sausage. They have identified a butcher shop in Grootfontein.
However, regional officials have not yet been able to establish whether the processed meat product was imported from South Africa. They are also waiting on confirmation tests to determine if the sick man is infected with the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes. Meanwhile, Namibia’s main international entry points to Otavi and Grootfontein have initiated monitoring measures to prevent potentially contaminated imports.
“We will have a meeting with the managing director of the company which supplied the product, then we will screen and go to the market and remove all the products associated with the outbreak and dispose of them,” Oshikoto Region Health Director Peter Angala told allafrica.com.
In Mozambique National Inspectorate of Economic Activities General Inspector Acácio Foia told allafrica.com on Monday that there are still 40 metric tons of imported processed meats to be incinerated. He said imports of the polony produced by RCL Foods and Enterprise are being stopped at the border.
“I guarantee you that these products are not entering Mozambique,” he said. “The most important thing is to guarantee that (our department) and a multi-sector team that includes the customs service and the heath and agricultural authorities are ready in the field.”
WHO encourages cooperation, action
Outbreak specialists with the World Health Organization also say a multi-pronged approach is needed. The WHO is seeking the help of 16 African nations to contain the outbreak.
Tuesday the international organization reported the contaminated ready-to-eat processed meat products may have been exported to two West African countries and 14 members of the South African Development Community (SADC). Those members are Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The WHO also reported it expects more people to fall ill before the outbreak is over, even though the implicated polony has been recalled.
“… in light of the potentially long incubation period of listeriosis and the challenges relating to large scale nationwide recall processes, further cases are likely to occur,” according to a statement from the WHO detailing how countries need to work together on improving abilities to prepare for, detect and respond to outbreaks.
“This outbreak is a wake up call for countries in the region to strengthen their national food safety and disease surveillance systems,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
The international public health organization heralded whole genome sequencing as an invaluable tool in the outbreak investigation thus far. WHO is supporting further genome sequencing to determine which cases are linked to this on-going outbreak, according to the Tuesday statement.
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