on assignment: south africa

Johannesburg — The mother of a child infected with listeriosis while she was pregnant has described the heartbreak of not knowing what the future holds for her daughter.

Monthla Ngibeni gave birth to Theto Khutjo Ngibeni in December 2017. Two months later Theto was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and a ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt was inserted in her brain to drain accumulating fluid.

Hydrocephalus is a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) builds up within the brain. CSF is needed to provide protection for the brain. Hydrocephalus occurs when there is a blockage which prevents excess CSF from draining away.

Thirty-seven-year old Monthla Ngibeni lives in Limpopo, Polokwane. The Listeria outbreak was linked to polony, a ready-to-eat processed meat, produced by Tiger Brands in its Enterprise Foods facility in Polokwane, South Africa.

Theto Ngibeni

Theto got infected while Monthla was pregnant. She was diagnosed with the disease at 18 days old. She was one of 1,060 confirmed cases and 216 deaths between January 2017, and July 2018. At the time she was having convulsions and vomiting. The pediatrician took Theto to the pediatric Intensive Care Unit (ICU), tested her, and found infection with Listeria before admitting her for 10 days in January 2018.

Speaking from her hospital bed after a double hip operation, Monthla told Food Safety News that she didn’t know anything about listeriosis until giving birth to her daughter who then fell sick.

“For now we don’t know what the future holds for Theto, she is now one year and one month and she is not yet crawling, she’s not yet walking so her milestones are obviously delayed. Her development has been affected, she cannot even crawl and that breaks my heart. She doesn’t do what the other babies are doing,” she said.

“My future plan was to have a confectioner business of my own because I am good at baking so now all that has ended because I cannot bake anymore. Baking needs a lot of ups and downs, I cannot bake sitting down on the couch.”

The South African Police Service (SAPS) call center operator is married and has two other children, a 10-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl, with the latter sometimes struggling with the situation.

“The first kid is cool, the second one when we pass Enterprise in Polokwane, as it is near my house, she will point to that tiger (logo on the building) and scream like this: ‘I hate you Tiger, I won’t use anything from Tiger, I won’t even eat your Jungle Oats again, I hate you Tiger Brands. You killed my mother, you killed my baby sister.’ so you can imagine how the baby feels when she talks like that and she is still very anxious, she is only 6,” said Monthla.

“You know, my life since that January has been a mess, it has been chaos. We are not enjoying anything, financially we are strained, emotionally the trauma we went through is so painful. My other two kids, anything they see at home, you can imagine what they are going through.”

Monthla said she would crave polony and viennas when pregnant and have breakfast at home.

“Maybe eggs, bread and go to Enterprise and buy the polony and I would eat them, I liked to eat it and RTE products, not knowing that we are harming ourselves,” she said.

“I feel like my child has been denied the right to a healthy life, my child will suffer for the rest of her life because of polony and because of Enterprise. I pass Enterprise every day when I go to work, when we take the kids to school. It is so painful, it is unbearable.

“My wish is that Tiger Brands can compensate us and reopen their factories after the cleaning so our brothers and sisters do not remain jobless. If they do this, people will go and buy. I am done with it, even if it is not RTE, I am done with them. My advice to the people with a compromised immune system is they should just avoid RTE foods, they are very dangerous. My life is a mess, my child’s life is a mess, she cannot do anything yet. I don’t know what the future holds for us.”

Thato, who is only 1 year old, already has had four operations to remove and insert VP shunts due to blocking issues.

“I am so disappointed about this listeriosis. It has changed our lives very much. Once they diagnose a child with hydrocephalus it means it is a lifetime thing. She will have to live with those VP shunts for the rest of her life. She will have to go to special schools,” said Monthla.

“It is very hard on me as I am in hospital, she is currently with my mother at my house who is staying with her until I come back home. Even when I am home my mother will have to take care of me and Theto as well because we cannot afford to hire the nanny now.

“My mother helps me, she is old though at 76, so you say thank God there is somebody around the house. I am glad I still have a shoulder to lean on and also my supportive husband who is doing all that he can to make sure we have the life that we need.”

Monthla said the only support she has received is from family members.

“From Tiger I didn’t get any support. By the time Theto started being sick, the second and third time is the time I thought they would help with interim assistance in paying the medical bills but they didn’t.

“We are not coping at all. My family is trying to cope, they are trying to be strong for me, but we are not coping. It has been long, it is too much. We would like Tiger Brands to have mercy on everyone that has been infected or affected.”

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 what the World Health Organization reports was the largest Listeria outbreak on record. It’s been nearly eight months since government officials in South Africa declared the outbreak over, but victims and their families continue to struggle to overcome its impact. We are publishing a series of stories to help ensure that the public’s voice is heard.

Click here to read Whitworth’s interview with Thomas Mogale, who lost his brother in the outbreak and is still unsure whether his niece knows her father has died.

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