Foodborne disease, the aftereffect of consuming pathogen-contaminated foods, is a major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Every year an estimated 137, 000 people living in Africa lose their lives as a result of eating contaminated foods. The issue of foodborne disease is not exceptionally different in Ghana.

Given the elevated rates of illness and death associated with foodborne diseases, countries, especially the developed ones have instituted measures to strengthen their surveillance structures against foodborne outbreaks. Hence, epidemiological studies as well as systematic surveillance are periodically undertaken to forestall future foodborne outbreaks. Such practices have uncovered and implicated flies, cockroaches, weevils, mites and mice as the common pests of food safety concern.

Consequently, most people view these ‘animals’ as dangerous. In typical Ghanaian homes, efforts are made to ensure that surrounding environments are uninhabitable to the above-mentioned pests. Though this is good public health practice, it is noteworthy to emphasize that the list of vectors of infectious diseases extends beyond the aforementioned. One such vector that is often overlooked is the Ant.

Ants are tiny, globally distributed insects that coexist in symbiosis with humans. The beneficial role of ants in intermediary ecosystem services cannot be downplayed. In a similar vein, the role of ants in foodborne diseases cannot elude scholarly discussions. The few available scientific studies on ants as vectors of pathogens, have cited them as carriers of microbes including Escherichia coli, Salmonella spp., Clostridium perfringens, Bacillus cereus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria monocytogenes, etc.

Our previous piece (Tiny Terror: Ants as Food Pathogen Transporters ) solely detailed our laboratory observations. Thus, we will take a quick look at a few research that implicate ants as carriers of pathogens and explain how these pathogens contribute to foodborne outbreaks. An investigation on the potential of ants as food pathogen carriers conducted in Mauritius found that these tiny animals have a moderately high frequency of success in spreading E. coli to food surfaces. Salmonella spp. was also enumerated from the studied ants. On 1st March 2023, a teacher and three students lost their lives, as a result of an outbreak of Salmonella and E. coli. A contaminated water reservoir was identified as the cause of the tragedy.

In a different investigation, Staphylococcus aureus was enumerated from ants sampled from school canteens and kitchen environments in 9 schools located in a State in Brazil. Every year, an estimated 241, 000 people living in the United States suffer from Staphylococcal food poisoning. This Gram-positive bacterium is often enumerated from milk and dairy products, vegetables, meat and products, cheese, egg products, etc. In a recent revelation, ants have been linked to the occurrence and development of diabetes mellitus.

Once more in Brazil, it was discovered that bacteria such as Bacillus and Listeria species were present in ants sampled from pediatric clinics, surgical centres, intensive care units, medical wards, obstetric units, reception rooms, and outdoor spaces. Bacillus spp. is a group of spore-forming bacteria capable of producing spores that can withstand cooking temperatures. It is noteworthy that from 2003 to 2013, B. cereus was the most often identified pathogen associated with foodborne outbreaks in Brazil.

On the other side, Listeria spp. ranks among the leading foodborne outbreak pathogens in the world. Although Listeria outbreaks are uncommon, they can be exceedingly deadly when they do occur. A typical example is the outbreak of Listeria in South Africa in 2017. About 216 people lost their lives within a short period of the outbreak.

The purpose of this essay is to alert you to the reality that ants, just like the cockroaches, mice, and flies we encounter in unhygienic environments are essentially the same in terms of their disease-causing potential. Thus, the next time you discover an ant in your food or as it walks over your dishes and drinking glass, think of them as cockroaches, flies, or mice.

Written by:
Alexandra Daplah Mwinbong (Research and Teaching Assistant, Faculty of Biosciences, UDS)
Joseph Nzeh (Member, Emerging Scholars Hub // +233246903245 // )

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