on assignment: south africa

Johannesburg — A man who was hospitalized for three weeks and in a coma for six days has told how the South African Listeria outbreak has taken a toll on him and his family.

Damodaran Reddy was diagnosed with chronic asthma, a sleep disorder and his eyesight has been impacted after he was infected with listeriosis in December 2017.

The 50 year old told Food Safety News how life is different now compared to before.

“I have chronic asthma and I also have a sleep disorder called sleep apnea where I feel like I want to fall asleep when I am driving. I seem to have lost some memory, I can’t remember certain things. It was so sharp I could click my fingers and give you an answer, I was Google myself but I’ve lost that. I’ve lost a lot of strength, I was never a strappy person but I’ve gone weaker and shortness of breath, if I do a little exercise it takes more time to recover,” he said.

“I am moving on but obviously it has taken a toll on the family, it will take a while for them to really adjust. For me it is taking a while to adjust to the situation, I was a very sporty person and after this it is trying to get back on track again. It is a slow process but I am getting there every day.”

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

Days after speaking to Food Safety News, he was scheduled to go into hospital for two days for a colonoscopy.

“They feel they need to check everything. They did a gastroscopy where they found bacteria in my stomach which was treated. I have had treatment for reflux as well and it has increased my blood pressure. In December (2018) I went in overnight as my potassium levels dropped down so my feet were swelling up and I had mild heart failure due to that. It has clearly taken its toll on me,” said Damodaran.

Polony was a favorite food

Enterprise Foods polony back in supermarkets in February 2019. Picture: Joe Whitworth

The procurement manager for HQ & CO, an interior design company, said work has been impacted due to a number of hospital trips and the fact he has used up all his sick leave.

Reddy, who has lived in Bryanston for 12 years, said polony one was of his favorite things to eat.

“I always enjoyed polony from being a kid and I always had Enterprise polony. I would have it sometimes when I come home from work, just cut a slice and have it like that as a snack or for lunch on bread. I don’t touch any processed food now.”

In December 2017 the company was days away from closing for the summer vacation when Damodaran started to feel symptoms of infection.

“I had deadlines to meet as we are a manufacturing company and in that week I was the only one in the family that had the polony. The next day was sweltering hot and towards the afternoon I felt very cold and feverish. I actually put on a jumper because I felt so cold and my colleagues wanted to know why when it was about 32 degrees outside,” he said.

“I said you don’t understand I am feeling absolutely cold and I had an excruciating continuous headache which I could not shrug off. I just waited for the day to finish so I could get home. On the way to pick my wife up she saw me with the jumper and she said what is wrong with you? I said I am not feeling well, I am feeling ice cold and my head is throbbing. I got home and had a shower, I didn’t want to eat, I just wanted to sleep all the time. I took some tablets for the headache and went to sleep.”

The next few days included symptoms such as feeling weak, cold, feverish and sweaty as well as having a headache, wanting to sleep and not wanting to eat.

“On a Monday my wife said she tried to wake me up as I had to drop her at work but I was not responding so she told my son to take her to work and on the way back if I was not feeling well take me to hospital. When he got to me, he shook me and I was not responding and he was quite worried. So he dressed me and carried me to the car, I was unaware of all this as I was unconscious by that time, he drove me to the nearest hospital and I was admitted.”

A 50-50 chance of survival

Damodaran spent 22 days in the hospital including six days in a coma in the intensive care unit and on life support.

His wife, Priscilla Reddy, arrived at the hospital 40 minutes after he was admitted.

“The doctors advised they had already done some tests and the assumption was he had bacterial meningitis and at the time they said the symptoms could be Listeria but they needed to wait for the blood tests. About one hour later the doctors advised us he did have listeriosis and there was a 50-50 chance of survival,” she said.

“They rushed him off into ICU and they were doing all sorts of tests while I was outside waiting. Another couple of hours later the doctor said they’ve received a lot of the test results and they are treating him for listeriosis. At the time they didn’t have the medication at the hospital so they ordered it and started the extensive treatment.”

Priscilla camped outside the ICU and spent 99 percent of her time at the hospital.

“I knew they were running a lot of extensive tests, they had him on life support. A lot of the medical doctors and nurses were not exposed to having to treat somebody, he was the first patient at the hospital, but there was brilliant assistance from both treating doctors and nurses right through the entire process.”

The consumer is the one to suffer

Damodaran said South African authorities could have acted quicker and Tiger Brands should have had better checks in place.

“Eighteen months is a long time to investigate where the source really came from. I think they should have had a task team out there immediately getting this sorted out. I’ve seen it (polony back on supermarket shelves) and I walk really far away from it. I don’t go down that section at all,” he said.

“For a huge company, Enterprise should at least have had all the infrastructure to have health care monitored on a daily basis and make sure all their outlets are 100 percent. That is what happens with big enterprises, they tend to cut corners when they own the monopoly, so this is what happens and the consumer, unfortunately, has to suffer.”

Priscilla said there was no support structure in place and they have coped as a family.

“We had to deal with it as a family and find out more by Googling and getting to understand how serious it was. There was no real support structure as to exactly what we were dealing with. Through the process, even to today, my son and I have not even tested ourselves, we just had doubts with emotions and dealing with the problem. It is not a very nice feeling when you are watching the results every day and seeing the death toll increase and increase.”

The 48-year-old urged South Africans not to take incidents such as this lightly.

“I think we would not have had such a huge outbreak if our medical fields within the country would have done more research and homework when the first case was picked up. The trust in our government and medical departments really suffers, we all pay our medical aid towards the relevant institutes and you trust they would do the right thing when something like this turns up,” she said.

“Unfortunately things do happen but at least to have been a bit more knowledgeable and not taken it lightly. They should have created far greater awareness, we don’t want to create a scare, but at the same time a little bit more infrastructure and a bit more awareness to support the families on how best to deal with this.

“When the medical institutes found out, here is a patient in the hospital, get the relevant people to come and give them some guidance. That sort of support would be great and change the way we do things.”

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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