JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Thirty-six people have died in South Africa from an outbreak of the food-borne disease listeriosis, the country's Department of Health said on Tuesday.
By the end of last month, 557 cases had been confirmed, compared with about 80 cases annually in past years, the department said. It could not estimate how many deaths had usually occurred in the past.
The department has not found the origin of the outbreak but suspects food contamination at the source, such as farms or food processing plants. It was probably spread by "a food product that is widely distributed and consumed by people across all socio-economic groups," Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said.
Listeriosis is caused by a bacterium found in soil, water and vegetation. People usually contract it through animal products and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The disease causes flu-like symptoms and can lead to nausea, diarrhoea, infection of the blood stream and brain. It poses a higher risk for newborns, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weak immunity, the health department said.
Gauteng province, South Africa's economic hub, had 62 percent of the reported cases, followed by the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town, with 13 percent and KwaZulu-Natal, site of the country's main port, Durban, with 7 percent.
(Reporting by Tanisha Heiberg, editing by James Macharia and Larry King)