A food-poisoning outbreak has killed dozens of people, with the death toll expected to increase in the coming days.
As of Thursday, 189 people have died in a listeria outbreak stemming from a meat-production plant in Polokwane, South Africa. The country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases has confirmed 982 cases of listeriosis since the outbreak began in January.
Listeria has an incubation period of up to 70 days, meaning that experts expect more cases will be reported in the coming days. Additionally, ready-to-eat meat products like those produced by the Polokwane factory have a long fridge life and can cross-contaminate other products, increasing the likelihood that more people will be infected.
Listeria infections are typically caused by eating contaminated food. Most healthy people under the age of 65 will have symptoms such as diarrhea and fever, though these infections are rarely diagnosed.
The infection is much more dangerous for older adults, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women (as it can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and newborn death).
Typically, roughly 1,600 people get listeriosis each year, and about 260 die, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The most recent major listeria outbreak in the US was in 2011, when seven people died after eating contaminated cantaloupe.
The meat-production plant, Enterprise Foods’ Polokwane production facility, issued a recall on its ready-to-eat processed meat products on March 4.
The homepage of Enterprise Foods’ website is currently a public safety announcement, asking customers to remove products from their refrigerators, place them in sealed plastic bags, and return them to stores for a full refund.
The incident in South Africa is the largest listeria outbreak that has ever been detected, the World Health Organization said earlier this month. WHO additionally expressed concern that the outbreak could spread to different countries and is offering assistance in monitoring and diagnosing listeria, if needed by governments.