Listeriosis outbreak: Hunt for a killer bug

It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

The medical scientists at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) have been trying to find the source of the listeriosis outbreak, but the haystack seems to grow larger by the day.

With over 900 cases confirmed through laboratory tests, the food-borne disease has so far claimed 172 lives across the country.

Since the outbreak was declared, the centre’s focus has been on doing whole-genome sequencing of the specimens they receive from the National Health Laboratory Service and private laboratories, to find the source of the outbreak. Every other project or investigation has had to take a back seat.

 “Just about all we do every day, all day is on this disease and we’re hoping that cholera or typhoid stay quiet and wait their turn,” NICD head Dr Juno Thomas quipped.

It has become a race against the clock for the team of scientists, technologists and data capturers working to find the source, which is currently unknown and uncontrolled.

The outbreak has become the nation’s silent killer and the numbers keep climbing.

Dr Anthony Smith, a senior medical scientist at the NICD’s centre for enteric diseases, told View Today this week that finding the source of such an outbreak is a very slow process.

“Even in overseas investigations, where they have more resources, such as in the outbreaks in Germany and in the US, it took them several years to find the source. Just when we think we’ve analysed 200 isolates and we’re up to date, you come into the lab the next day and there are an other 200 isolates waiting for you.”

While the health ministry has been at pains to explain that it is a treatable and preventable disease caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, the outbreak strain ST6 causes severe disease in humans.

Scientists don’t know yet why this strain is so virulent. “Not all listeria is bad, but something has happened to this particular strain genetically, that when you get it, it’s a bad outcome. We just don’t know what,” Smith said.

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