on assignment: south africa

Johannesburg — A woman who had a miscarriage due to listeriosis had already started planning for the new arrival before the tragedy and revealed she is constantly reminded of missed milestones.

Mamorake Ntjana found out in June 2017 that she was expecting her second child but she lost the baby at around four months pregnant. The family has a card with footprints of the baby.

The 30-year-old told Food Safety News she had started planning things to do with the newborn baby but in October she suffered a miscarriage while in hospital.

“A week before we went to the doctor when they did a scan everything looked fine and next minute we lost the baby. I had things going in my mind like how and why did this happen?  You start blaming yourself, thinking I was not eating healthy enough, maybe I did something wrong that is the reason my baby died, if I did this or that maybe it would have been different.”

The Listeria outbreak was linked to polony, ready-to-eat processed meat, produced by Tiger Brands in its Enterprise Foods facility in Polokwane, South Africa. There were 1,060 confirmed cases and 216 deaths between January 2017, and July 2018.

Enterprise factory shop

Mamorake said she often ate Enterprise polony and craved such foods during pregnancy.

Polony in supermarkets in February 2019. Picture: Joe Whitworth

“My husband works in Germiston which is not far from an Enterprise factory where they have a shop. Normally when we do groceries we buy polony and viennas for lunchboxes and to eat for breakfast but it is a bit expensive,” she said.

“One time he called me and said he was going with a colleague who is buying an Enterprise hamper with polony, viennas, ham, cheese, and other things and it is this much. I said he should buy it as it will last us the whole month instead of buying one polony and in a couple of weeks having to buy another one. He started buying them around June or July and we became regular customers and recommended it to family and friends.

“It was the first stage of my pregnancy and I was enjoying it, I would eat it for breakfast and sometimes at night also. Luckily he used his card so it is on the statement that he bought it from there. We would not buy it now and we don’t even buy any brand of polony.”

The maintenance planner at PPC Cement said she was supported by her family and husband but never went through counseling.

“I just thought I would be fine, it took a while and I cannot say I have healed because I sometimes go and get that card with the footprints of the baby and look at it just thinking. Also, it comes back a lot, every time I see someone with a kid, I think my child would be this many months now maybe she would be crawling,” she said.

“My mother was there, my mother in law, two sisters in law and three sisters. My sister who lives far away would call every day to check how I am doing and my sister in law and my sister who are around would come to chat.”

Her husband, Teddy Ntjana, who works at Eskom as an electrician, said Tiger Brands must do the right thing.

“They owe that much to the public. I will probably never in my life buy another Enterprise product. They must admit they are at fault and compensate all the affected people accordingly. The saddest part is I actually held the baby in my hand, that image now she is talking about it, comes back and it is painful.”

People died during the investigation

The family, who moved to Midrand in October 2017 from Pretoria West, agreed that South African authorities should have been quicker.

“They only informed people in 2018 that it was Tiger Brands, when they suspected this they should have given caution to the people and while it was investigated more people got infected and lost their loved ones. Immediately after they suspected they should have done something, maybe they shouldn’t have told people but they should have stopped production,” said Mamorake.

“Tiger Brands are producing something that people eat daily, so they mustn’t take it for granted and do it just for money. Maybe they neglected their health procedures or testing but I believe they learned their lesson, and now things are back in supermarkets, they are working more than before as they cannot afford to have another listeriosis outbreak. I believe Tiger Brands acknowledges what they did and will do what is right to prevent the same thing from happening again and be extra careful now.”

Mamorake said symptoms such as tiredness and headaches started in July 2017 but got worse in October.

“On October 25 I was at work, I felt tired but just thought maybe it is the pregnancy. A week before I went to the doctor who said maybe the symptoms are pregnancy-related and told me to drink a lot of water. With my first pregnancy, I didn’t have these symptoms but pregnancies are not the same.

“It was over 30 degrees Celsius outside, I was sitting at my desk and I started feeling very cold. I took my heavy jacket they give us at work and put it on but I still felt cold and it was getting worse, I started shivering and felt like there was ice inside my body. My colleague took me to the clinic at work, the sister checked and said because I was pregnant I should go to the hospital.”

Symptoms before miscarriage

At the hospital, Mamorake continued to feel cold even with another jacket and blanket.

“When I touched myself I was hot and it was hot outside but I was feeling cold. When we got to the hospital we went to the emergency room, they rushed me through and said my temperature was very high at about 40 degrees. They did some blood tests and tried to stabilize my temperature,” she said.

“My husband arrived about one hour after that. I started to feel a bit better as I was not shivering and the doctor came and said they wanted to admit and monitor me overnight. My husband left around 8:30 pm and I slept one hour after that but the cold came back, I called the sisters for blankets but my temperature was still high.

“I was crying for blankets and eventually I had four folded blankets and my gown on. They stabilized me and it got better. What happens is after feeling cold for a long time, you start feeling hot and then sleepy. I slept for two hours and then it happened again, maybe three times that night. In the morning, it happened again.”

The following day she was sitting with her husband when the abdominal pain started.

“I called the sister but the pains started getting worse and increasing. In my head, I didn’t even think of miscarriage. I gave birth to my first daughter so I knew what labor pains were. It only happened after I miscarried that I realized those pains were not normal,” she said.

“The pains started getting too much and they gave me some medication to make me sleep. My husband, who was with me all along, said he was going to quickly buy food. In my sleep, I would feel those pains and then I woke up and they were too much, I started feeling pressure on my abdomen and it felt like I wanted to pee.

“I was sleeping on my side and as I turned I noticed the bed was wet so I tried to stand up and go to the toilet. I was still alone but stood up and went slowly from the bed, and just when I got to stand up I felt something heavy and pressing down inside me blocked there.”

This was the point Mamorake became scared and started to cry.

“I pressed the emergency button for the nurses and when I moved my leg I heard this noise, it was like someone pouring water and I saw blood and things on the floor. The lady next to me turned the curtain and said she’s lost the baby and pressed the emergency button and about 10 nurses came running. One nurse went underneath another bed and said it is a baby girl, she took the baby and covered it with a cloth, when I heard her saying that I started crying saying I lost the baby,” she said.

“The nurses put me on the bed and started cleaning. They asked if I wanted to see the baby and I said no, I was crying, confused, hurt; everything at the same time. After 10 minutes my husband came in, I was just crying it was so sad.”

Following an operation to retrieve the placenta and further blood tests the family was told listeriosis caused the miscarriage.

An upcoming addition to the family

Mamorake said it was the first time they had heard of Listeria.

“After we went on Google and the first thing it said was pregnant women are very sensitive and sometimes they will miscarry. We read everything about listeriosis and that is when we realized it was the cause. We sat in that ward for about an hour, it was quiet and we didn’t say anything to each other,” she said.

“I stayed in the hospital for seven days and they gave me antibiotics to clear the bacteria and took blood every day. After a week they discharged me but it was not totally out of my system so they gave me antibiotics to take for a week at home and soon after I went back to work. I couldn’t stay at home, I was going crazy.”

The family wanted the gap between their children to be about one year six months but their first child is now two and a half years old. However, the couple confirmed they are expecting another child.

Mamorake said she had been hopeful but afraid of falling pregnant due to the miscarriage risk.

“The listeriosis took our baby away. Recently, I found out I am expecting a baby girl due in July so after we found out we are pregnant we were happy because at least now, while we won’t forget and the scar will always be there, it will get better.”

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 eight months since government officials declared the outbreak over, but victims and their families continue to struggle to overcome its impact. In the past weeks, we have published a series of stories to help ensure that the public’s voice is heard. This is the final article. 

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


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