on assignment: south africa

Johannesburg — The father of a child who survived the South African Listeria outbreak says he replays the moment a doctor asked if he preferred the mother of his child or newborn baby live.

Mpotseng Moloi went to Linksfield Hospital in Johannesburg on the advice of her doctor and, after admission in early January 2018, had an emergency caesarean section despite Nomahlubi Fezokuhle Moloi being due in early February.

The largest ever recorded Listeria outbreak occurred in South Africa during 2017 and 2018. More than 1,000 people were confirmed infected and more than 200 deaths were linked to polony, a ready-to-eat processed meat, made in a factory in Polokwane by Enterprise Foods, which is owned by Tiger Brands. Polony is similar to baloney products sold in the United States.

Bonginkosi Radebe told Food Safety News he was asked the question when Mpotseng was in the operating room.

“I stood there shaking saying what’s happening? What’s wrong? Then they said ‘they are infected with Listeriosis.’ I said what’s that? I could see the fluid that was drained from inside her, it was greenish like dirty water because there was a pipe. So I was confused, I didn’t know what to do and what to say,” Radebe said.

‘I am lucky’
Radebe said when he was in the hospital with doctors running around, he panicked not knowing what was happening.

“Maybe something is wrong and they do not want to tell you,” he said. “Even now when I am sleeping I can still see that moment when people started running around. I can still hear that doctor asking me the same question: ‘Who do you prefer that must live?’ Even when I am sitting in the house looking at my baby, the tears just come. We almost lost her and I almost lost both of them. So now I am lucky. What about those who were not lucky enough? That is my worry.”

The newborn baby was taken to an isolated room where hospital staff tried to explain Listeria.

“The color of the baby was different, she was yellow, even the hair was yellow. They said the color means it is not normal, she would have to stay in for treatment until she is right. After that I had to stay in the hospital until the mother was discharged. That five minutes felt like hours, my first question was if something goes wrong what am I going to tell her family? What went wrong, you see things like that. I hate being a bearer of bad news,” said Radebe.

Mpotseng, who has lived in Alexandra, a township in the Gauteng province in South Africa, for more than 30 years, said she had heard of Listeria but did not know what it was or where it came from.

Public health officials in South Africa determined polony from Enterprise Foods, owned by Tiger Brands, was the source of Listeria.

“I did know of listeriosis but only on the messages you get on the What’s App groups about be careful of this disease. I didn’t believe it as you always get these messages.”

A community development worker, Mpotseng ate a sandwich with polony in early January 2018.

“At night I realised I had some pains in my belly and my baby was not kicking as normal. I thought maybe she is just growing as every time she grows there is less space. The next day I ate the sandwich again, she played only in the morning then she was quiet,” she said.

“I told the father that I am worried the baby is not playing but I think it is the space, lets not panic. I knew every time I ate and drank water the baby would kick but she didn’t the whole day. The next day she was very quiet, she was not moving at all, I told the father and he said we must call the doctor.”

The doctor told the pair to go to hospital and she was admitted at about eight months pregnant.

Mother and daughter given all-clear
Mpotseng had been pregnant twice before and has two boys, one aged 17 and the other aged 16.

“I knew what was supposed to happen. During the pregnancy you check your baby, they are not the same, but you know this baby is like this and another is like that. I realized earlier that this baby is not playing as much as I am used to,” she said.

“When we got to hospital we were admitted, the nurses checked me and found my fever was too high and the baby’s heart was not beating too well. They called the doctor and he said I had to go for an emergency caesarean right away. A day after delivery the pediatricians and gynaecologist informed us about the diagnosis as they had taken my amniotic fluid for testing and they told us the results showed an infection called Listeriosis.”

Nomahlubi was placed in isolation in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“It affected us emotionally seeing the baby going through tests daily to check all her vital organs were working. It was a traumatic experience to see my tiny baby with drips and wires all over,” said Mpotseng.

“I was in hospital for six days and she was in hospital for 16 days. I went twice a day to visit. When she was discharged I was told that she was good to go but I had to go for check-ups with the paediatricians but everything was normal. I am OK now, I was worried about any disabilities but there were none so she is fine.”

Enterprise polony back in stores
Mpotseng said they gave the two boys polony and bread because it is normal and quick.

“I just started last month to buy it again. It is not Enterprise Foods polony. I will never buy it again. But Bonginkosi did not want to see it, even if I put it in the trolley and said there is no risk anymore, he would tell us no, we cannot take chances. I cook it now, I fry it before I put it on my sandwich,”

Radebe said buying any brand of polony is difficult.

“When you go shopping and she puts polony in the trolley when you arrive at the till and I see the polony and she is not there I take it out. The first time, these things like Listeria, you don’t expect it to happen to you or your family. When you hear people talking about it you think it is going to be something that is far away but when it happened, we struggled a lot. We used to support the brand but now the brand failed us a lot,” Nomahlubi’s father said.

Radebe said he was angry when he saw polony back on the supermarket shelves and heard Tiger Brands was re-opening its Enterprise Foods factory in Polokwane.

“Somebody there in the plant did not do their job. If you work with food you should have somebody who is always there inspecting food,” he said.

“Somebody was lazy and for that they should suffer the consequences because some of the people lost their lives. We are lucky and our luck still makes me scared even today. What about those who didn’t get a chance to talk about it like we are now? They (those responsible for the outbreak) should pay up.”

“It is difficult to come up with something to say to those who lost someone because I am lucky I did not lose anyone. It would take me days to try and figure out what can I say to that person. But I think they should come out, if we can come and stand together and face Tiger Brands there will be justice. Tiger Brands are here making money from South African people so let them pay back now, let them comfort the hearts of those people who lost someone.”

Editor’s note: In early February, Joe Whitworth traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, for Food Safety News to interview some of the people who were affected by the Listeria outbreak. It’s been nearly eight months since government officials declared the outbreak over, but victims and their families continue to struggle to overcome its impact. In the coming weeks we will be publishing a series of stories to help ensure that the public’s voice is heard.

To read more of Whitworth’s coverage about the impact of the outbreak, please see:

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