Listeriosis: Examining the disease from the victim's perspective

With antimicrobial resistance on the increase, it’s more important than ever that the EU takes advantage of alternative, prevention-based technologies such as Bacteriophages in the fight against bacterial infections such as Listeriosis, reports Brian Johnson.
Sarah Wiener (Greens/EFA, AT) and Sirpa Pietikäinen (EPP, FI) during the webinar on 30 April

By Brian Johnson

20 May 2020

The EU risks losing out on the potential health benefits of so-called ‘Bacteriophages’ because of ‘bureaucratic obstacles’; it urgently needs to close a Europe-wide regulatory gap to allow their use in the fight against bacterial infections such as Listeriosis. This was the key message from a recent webinar on Listeriosis and disease outbreaks, organised by The Parliament Magazine and the PA International Foundation.

Opening the online discussion on 30 April, Austrian Greens/EFA MEP Sarah Wiener told participants that, “Listeria is among the most dangerous bacteria in foods. It causes listeriosis, an infection that is particularly dangerous for at-risk groups such as pregnant women, new-borns, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. For them to become infected with these bacteria can be a matter of life and death.”

In recent years, there have been several Listeriosis outbreaks in the EU, the most recent being last year in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. These led to more than a thousand infections and dozens of deaths, miscarriages and chronic health problems. Antibiotics, explained Wiener, are often key in tackling bacterial infections such as Listeriosis.


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But with antimicrobial resistance on the increase, policymakers and health professionals are on the lookout for alternative, prevention-based, options. “Bacteriophages, or simply, phages, are one such alternative to preventing disease outbreaks. By treating foods that are at particular risk of carrying Listeria, such as ready-to-eat meals with phages, we could effectively reduce the Listeriosis occurrence rate by 70-80 percent.”

Participants had the opportunity to hear, through short video messages, from two people affected by Listeriosis. Doreen Hossner described how she almost lost her baby at birth after contracting listeriosis during pregnancy. “If there’s the possibility to use something that actually helps to prevent Listeria, why should this not be used?” Baron Gus van der Feltz lost his health and his job following a vicious bout of Listeriosis.

“I see it as huge loss for the EU to give all the advantages of the use of these new technologies to third countries simply because of a missing regulatory framework. The European Parliament is ready to cooperate with the Commission on developing the necessary legislation now” Sarah Wiener MEP

Despite his ordeal, he spent much of his time speaking about the disease and promoting the development of a more preventative approach. The Dutchman’s video testimony was made all the more poignant by the fact that he had sadly passed away earlier this year.

Finnish EPP deputy Sirpa Pietikäinen said it was of utmost importance that Listeriosis prevention was highlighted at European level. “We know from the Coronavirus crisis that we need more effective health policies that better protect our citizens. Listeriosis is a deadly disease, and if there are new technologies and treatments that can prevent it, then why aren’t we using them?”

Pietikäinen said that she agreed with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s recent statement on speeding up slow and bureaucratic legislative processes. “Bureaucracy should not be put above human health.”

Around 70 percent of all Listeria contaminations can be prevented by Listex P100, which is produced and distributed by the innovative Dutch natural technology SME, Micreos. Listex P100 has been successfully authorised for use on food in several global markets.

However, for more than a dozen years, the EU has been unable to agree on how to authorise its use. Professor Frank Devlieghere, of the Department of Food Microbiology and Preservation at Ghent University, told participants that Listex P100 prevents Listeria bacteria from multiplying above safe levels.

He explained, “Phages are the natural enemies of bacteria and are abundantly present in nature. Every 48 hours, up to 50 percent of all bacteria present here on the Earth are being killed by phages.”

Spyros Pappas, attorney-at-law and former DG for Consumer Policy in the European Commission argued that The Treaty on the Functioning of the EU ensures a high level of human health protection in both definition and implementation of Union policies and activities, meaning that, “It may be that health as a policy remains within the national remit.

“We know from the Coronavirus crisis that we need more effective health policies that better protect our citizens. Listeriosis is a deadly disease, and if there are new technologies and treatments that can prevent it, then why aren’t we using them?” Sirpa Pietikäinen MEP

“However”, added Pappas, “this horizontal integration of health in all EU policies, next to the Commission’s action to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of Member States when it comes to health, ultimately gives it even more power and effectiveness than if it had a strict health competence.”

Michael Kuhn, a senior advisor to the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), said that, from a scientific point of view, the use of phages to stop the spread of Listeria bacteria in food and ready to eat products made sense.

He argued that, “From the point of view of an ethical position centred on the protection of the human being and their dignity, the use of phages in food production seems not only reasonable but ethically commanded. If we have the means to prevent harm then we are obliged to use them”.

Kuhn added that EFSA had called Listex P100 a powerful tool that could help significantly reduce the number of listeriosis cases and deaths caused by this disease.

Closing the discussion, Sarah Wiener said that, as Chair of the European Parliament’s AMR group, she believed that phages and their use needed to be given much more attention. “I see it as huge loss for the EU to give all the advantages of the use of these new technologies to third countries simply because of a missing regulatory framework.”

“The European Parliament is ready to cooperate with the Commission on developing the necessary legislation now. As a politician, I can hardly accept that an apparently safe way to prevent outbreaks of foodborne listeriosis or other diseases is not used in the EU due to bureaucratic obstacles.”

Click here to download all of the presentations.

In case you missed it, here's the full webinar video:

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