In Depth

What is listeria?

Government reveals full list of NHS hospitals affected by deadly outbreak

Eight NHS hospitals hit by a listeria outbreak that has claimed five lives have been named, as experts warn that more deaths may follow.

Health bosses confirmed last week that three people had died after eating sandwiches and salads infected with the deadly bug that were supplied by Staffordshire-based company The Good Food Chain. The authorities said two people had died at Manchester Royal Infirmary, with the third at Aintree Hospital in Liverpool.

Today, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that both Leicester Royal Infirmary and Royal Derby Hospital have also experienced severe outbreaks in which patients had died, bringing the national death toll to five. He added that milder outbreaks have been recorded at a further four hospitals: William Harvey in Ashford, Kent; Wexham Park Hospital in Berkshire; St Richards Hospital in Chichester, Sussex; and Worthing Hospital in West Sussex.

Hancock vowed to lead a “root and branch” review of hospital food, and said he was “keen to see the health service take NHS catering back in-house, in a bid to improve safety”, reports The Daily Telegraph.

The sandwiches and salads linked to the outbreak were withdrawn on 25 May, and the Department of Health says the risk to the general public is now low. However, scientists fear that more cases may emerge, because listeria has a 70-day incubation period within the body.

The strain of listeria responsible for the outbreak has been traced to meat from Salford-based supplier North Country Cooked Meats, the Daily Mail reports.

The paper adds that The Good Food Chain is now considering suing the meat company, with boss Martyn Corfield saying: “My sincere thoughts are with the families affected. I feel for them because I have been through it, I've been bereaved. But I'm very angry too, because we are a victim as much as anyone else.”

Although listeria is among the rarer forms of food poisoning, it is “still one of the most feared”, says The Times’ medical correspondent Dr Mark Porter.

So is that level of fear justified?

What is listeria?

Listeria is a harmful bacteria that thrives in ready-to-eat foods that have already been cooked when purchased. It can contaminate a wide range of food, including cooked sliced meats, cured meats, smoked fish, cooked shellfish, blue veined and mould-ripened soft cheeses, pate, and pre-prepared sandwiches and salads.

Foodborne bacteria such as listeria can be  spread by cross-contamination, such as when raw and cooked foods are stored together.

What is listeriosis?

Listeriosis is a rare infection caused by the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes that can cause serious problems if you have a weak immune system, or are pregnant. The people most at risk from listeriosis include those suffering from cancer, pregnant women and their unborn babies, newborn babies, and elderly people.

The most common way of getting infected is through ready-made foods, but you can also catch listeriosis from someone else who has it; for example, if you eat food they’ve handled when they haven’t washed their hands.

The Times’ Porter says that the chances of developing a serious infection “may be tiny (about 1 in 250,000 in a typical year in the UK)”, but if you are one of the unlucky ones, the “outlook is bleak”.

One in three victims will die from their infection, and many of those who survive will be left with some form of long-term disability, he warns.

Preventative measures include washing your hands regularly with soap and water; washing fruit and vegetables before eating them; storing ready-to-eat foods as recommended by the manufacturer; and making sure all heated food is steaming hot all the way through.

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