French confirm 29 deaths as listeria spreads

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH government disclosed last night that 29 people had died of listeriosis as thousands of Britons prepared to cross the Channel at the start of the school holidays.

Some 121 people had contracted the illness, 92 were still ill and seven women had suffered spontaneous abortions since the outbreak which began at the beginning of April.

But French doctors have so far failed to identify the source of the listeria outbreak.

Last month, the French health ministry launched a campaign through the medical press to alert doctors to the presence of the bacteria, to advise high-risk groups, particularly pregnant women, the elderly and small children, to cook animal food products thoroughly and to pay particular attention to washing raw vegetables.

They are also being told not to drink non-pasteurised milk and to avoid soft and blue-veined cheeses. Officials confirmed that the outbreak was widespread, occurring in 53 out of the country's 95 departments.

Yesterday a spokesman for the British Department of Health said it did not plan to issue specific food safety advice to travellers until more details were known.

He said: 'We are closely monitoring the situation and our officials are in touch with their French counterparts who are urgently trying to isolate the cause of the infection.

'Any advice from the department would need to contain some idea of the causes.

'Issuing some form of blanket statement would be less strong and might not be effective.'

He said that listeriosis was rarely a problem in healthy adults and children but could pose dangers to pregnant women - where there is a risk of spontaneous abortion - and to frail people or those whose immune systems are compromised by disease or immunosuppressant drugs.

Symptoms are similar to flu but might arise six weeks after infected food has been eaten. This makes it difficult for public health officials to trace a source as food remains have usually been disposed of.

The spokesman added that the department issued a booklet on food and health for pregnant women last year and that its advice to vulnerable people to avoid eating all types of pate, soft ripening cheeses (like Brie and Camembert), prepared foods that need reheating and cooked chicken, was still applicable. 'But listeriosis is still a very rare disease,' he said.

In England and Wales there were 47 reports by the end of June, a fall of seven over the first six months of last year.

In 1990, the most recent year for full confirmed figures, there were 118 cases, seven spontaneous abortions and 25 deaths.

Numbers have been falling since a peak of 291 cases in 1988. An official from the French General Direction of Health described the phenomenon as a 'flare-up' rather than an epidemic. The geographical spread implied that the listeria strain originated in a manufactured food product, she said. A team of five doctors and a vet from the agriculture ministry who are seeking the source had not yet traced it.

No single strain of the illness was dominating in England and Wales but 99 cases of listeria notified in France from mid-March to the end of June were all the same strain, so there may not be a link to Britain with the French outbreak.