on assignment: South Africa

JOHANNESBURG — The Mathole family’s joy at expecting their first baby almost turned to tragedy with a month and a half in hospital when their child was infected with listeriosis.

Onkarabile Olerato Mathole was expected in December 2017 but ended up being born in October. He was treated for 44 days at Akasia Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa. Onkarabile was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and has a Ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt in his brain to drain water. At almost 15 months old, he is struggling to crawl or walk.

Hydrocephalus occurs when cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) builds up within the brain. In normal amounts, CSF provides protection for the brain. Hydrocephalus occurs when there is a blockage which prevents excess CSF from draining away.

His mother, Nthabiseng Jane Ramanamane, and father, Thato Oscar Mathole, drove to and from the hospital every three hours for almost two months with their child in an incubator for most of that time.

Onkarabile is one of the cases in the largest ever recorded Listeria outbreak, which occurred in South Africa during 2017 and 2018. More than 1,000 people were confirmed infected and 210 deaths were linked to polony, a ready-to-eat processed meat item, produced in a factory in Polokwane by Enterprise Foods, which is owned by Tiger Brands.

Onkarabile Mathole

Jane Ramanamane described the experience as “difficult,” especially as the family was so excited at her finally becoming pregnant with their first child.

“With Onkarabile, even still now to play with him in the morning, he wakes us up wanting to play so it has not been easy. The mothers need to keep strong as through our emotions we are giving our babies a hope that one day they will be well,” she told Food Safety News.

Onkarabile’s father, Thato Oscar Mathole, a mechanical fitter at Hernic Ferrochrome Mine, said it has been a life-changing experience and he never thought they could have such a problem.

“It has affected our jobs, I am a mechanical fitter at a mine, you need to be concentrating while you are at work and sometimes I lose my concentration. We have a social worker and I would normally speak to her about the situation because if it affects me I might get injured,” he said.

“Tiger Brands needs to be more careful about their food as what they have done is negligent. They have hired people to check such things and it means one did not do his or her job in the company. Tiger Brands is entirely responsible for our baby being like this and those who have died so they need to check their food and whatever is not OK, they should not take it to the market.

“We just wish Tiger Brands would do the right thing for our children, we are suffering financially and emotionally, this little guy needs special attention, he needs to go to special schools where they can help him properly.”

Thato also said the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and South African authorities should have been quicker when they detected there could be an outbreak.

“If 10 people report the same thing they could have reacted to it. I once heard the health minister Aaron Motsoaledi saying listeriosis has been there for years and affected one or two people in a year but if it affects more than five it shows you there is a problem somewhere. I would say there are people who are still not aware of listeriosis or are trying to be ignorant. I would like to say those who don’t know it they must watch out because listeriosis may affect their entire life.”

Polony and Russians (a type of sausage) were monthly groceries and the family normally ate them at home.

“Nthabiseng liked Russians, I don’t normally eat them but she likes it and (while she was pregnant) she was craving more of Russians. We normally eat it on a sandwich and sometimes you would eat it alone. Enterprise (brand) is what we normally ate, as we grew up we knew Enterprise was nice polony but now we do not buy polony anymore as we had the bad experience with Onkarabile,” said Thato.

The family had no idea what Listeria was, having never heard the word until they were told by the hospital.

“It was on 19 October, my wife called me from work, she was experiencing pains, vomiting and had a high fever. When I went there I found her lying on the bench waiting for me, we came home but she said she cannot do it, I thought maybe she was going into labor as she had pains so I took her to hospital,” said Thato.

“When we got there they told us she might be giving birth, they thought she was affected by some kind of bacteria due to her reactions. The next day (Oct. 20) she gave birth to Onkarabile, they immediately took him to ICU and took a blood sample. When the results came back they said they think Onkarabile is infected by some sort of bacteria but it will take seven days to determine what kind.

“After seven days Onkarabile was on the oxygen pipes as each organ in his body was failing, the heart, kidneys, the lungs were filled with water he could not breathe on his own. The blood sample came back and they confirmed the culture of the bacteria is Listeria.

“They also did a scan on his brain and they found Grade 2 bleeding. The bleeding on his brain escalated to Grade 4 and everyone was starting to panic as it was serious. His kidneys and heart started to function but the problem was the brain. They never told us if the mother had listeriosis but it is the only way he could get it.”

Onkarabile Mathole

That was when the family first heard about listeriosis.

“That is when the matron started to ask us where have we been, what type of food have we been eating and she told us she was going to consult with the NICD. She told us there have been some reports about this disease but they are not sure it was not confirmed at that time,” said Thato.

“I remember when the doctor came and told us it was between life and death for Onkarabile to survive, we didn’t think he would survive. He was hospitalized for 44 days and we were in and out of the hospital every time.”

The Mathole family is trying to move forward. Two months ago, they welcomed a healthy Oratile,  into the world.

Nthabiseng said they had not spoken with anyone else affected by the outbreak.

“We watch YouTube interviews and try to relate with what happened to us. It was really tough especially when I was pregnant again I hope that he comes well as if they were both affected then we were going to struggle. They are two babies actually, when they cry they cry together so it is really difficult. It has affected me as I had to be off work to look after him when he was hospitalized because we were frequently in and out of the hospital and even when he is sick I cannot go to work.”

Thato said it was a day-to-day, on-and-off battle with Onkarabile because of his health.

“It is not sitting well with us as he cannot stand on his own, he cannot do anything every time you have to carry him when he wants to play. It has tampered with our emotions, it is a bad experience that I don’t wish anyone to go through it. I would say (to others in similar situations) that they need to be strong as these babies are little and they don’t know anything, they rely on us and if we start to become emotional it is not going to help them to heal,” he said.

“We are hoping he will get well with the physiotherapies and other professionals we have been taking him to. They are telling us to keep on exercising him maybe as he is still a baby the brain will develop and he will manage to do things on his own.”

Onkarabile’s grandmother is helping the family almost every day. Two of Thato’s sisters and two of Nthabiseng’s sisters and her brother are also offering support.

“To us as a family, Onkarabile is a blessing but through that blessing we have been through some difficulties. In the future we are just hoping Onkarabile will be well and we would see him walking,” said Thato.

“Everyone wishes to see their baby growing up, go to university and doing something with his life. I cannot determine what is going to happen to the future, only God knows what is going to happen to Onkarabile, but we will keep on supporting him to get well.”

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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