Beware the outbreak of misinformation
It is great to educate people about listerioris, but get your facts right first
If we are going to talk about South Africa’s deadliest outbreak of listeria, can we use the facts and refrain from relying solely on Dr Google?
After all, more than 100 people, including newborn babies, have died. Confusing everyone serves no purpose.
With a change of president and the Guptas on the run, you can forgive the media and everyone else for not talking much about listeriosis.
So, well done to the City of Johannesburg for making an attempt to educate people about the disease, and for choosing a busy spot like Soweto’s Baragwaneth taxi rank to tell people about listeriosis.
But could they get the facts right next time, please.
Perhaps the city should check with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, which is leading the country's response to listeria, to ensure their information is relevant.
In their listeriosis awareness campaign, the city tweeted about a dented can of baked beans.But two experts confirmed that in the process of canning food is heated, which kills the bacteria causing listeriosis.
Canned food is thus VERY low-risk.
Some may joke about the side effects of canned baked beans, but they certainly do not include listeriosis.
Despite what the City of Joburg’s #listeriosisawareness tweets tell you, you can also keep eating food from dented cans if the can has not been opened.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases is asking people who have contracted the disease to list what foods they have eaten.
They have a profile of patients affected and a list of likely foods to blame.
The institute knows it is a widely eaten product that is very cheap and is available across the country.
This is because people across South Africa contracting the disease are mostly poor, or, as the NICD politely says, “food insecure”.
Yet, the City of Johannesburg in its wisdom decided to produce a pamphlet mentioning oysters, sashimi, smoked fish, sushi and brie cheese as risks for listeriosis.
Yes, some of these foods have been linked to outbreaks abroad, but they are not what lower-income groups commonly eat in South Africa.
The city’s pamphlet includes a list of foods described as both “safe and those at higher risk of listeria contamination” under a single heading.
What they mean by this, is anybody's guess.
This pamphlet also has some random advice, such as store hard yellow cheese in a fridge. But listeria grow in the fridge.
The city tweeted a poster displayed at the taxi rank that was made from magazine cut outs and looked like an eight-year-old’s school project. But the tacky poster’s real crime is its misinformation.This poster has pictures of five foods: sprouts, boiled eggs, fresh fruit and veg, processed meat and unpasteurised milk …which is inexplicably referred to as raw milk. What South African understands the phrase raw milk?
Only two of the foods on the poster are likely to blame in this outbreak – unpasteurised milk or processed meats. Viennas, ham, salami and sausages and polony are not often cooked before eaten and fit the profile of a widely eaten food by the middle class and poor.
Cooking kills listeria bacteria.
Eggs, according the NICD, have been linked to cases abroad when they have been sold in liquid form without shells, such as egg whites specially packaged for bakers. But if you boil or cook eggs properly, the heat will kill the listeria bacteria.
The fact that every listeria infection in this outbreak is exactly a genetic clone of the other shows the NICD the source of contamination is a single source, such as a factory or food-processing plant.
This is why the NICD doesn’t suspect the sprouts or fresh fruit and vegetables featured in City of Joburg’s campaign. This is because there is not a single vegetable supplier or fruit packager that reaches across the country to cause the nationwide spread of cases.
The underlying problem with the misinformation is that cities do their own health communication, provincial departments decide on their own messaging and the national Health Department is independent. There is no co-ordination – and, to make matters worse, in this case there was no fact-checking either.
The City of Cape Town was no better. It said in a fear-mongering press release that the drought would likely worsen listeriosis. The only way this could happen, the NICD confirmed, is if a lack of water leads to less washing of hands or inadequate cleaning of food utensils. But the drought will not increase food contamination in a food plant or factory, believed by the NICD to be in Gauteng.
What the City of Johannesburg got right was rules for safe storage and use of food.
Keep raw and cooked food separately. You don’t want raw food that may have listeria to contaminate the cooked food.
Wash your hands regularly when preparing and eating food.
Don’t mix utensils used with raw meat with those used on cooked food. Cook food at high temperatures.
Reheat precooked food, such as prepared shop-bought meals, at high temperatures.
The city forgot one rule.
Treat listeria tweets and pamphlets from the City of Joburg with caution.