A survivor of the South African Listeria outbreak has described the ordeal as extremely painful and emotionally traumatic.

Gina Moyo was hospitalized for eight days in November 2017. She was quarantined and not allowed to see her two children.

“It really is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I don’t think you ever get over it. One of my friends came to see me before they established it was Listeria and the sight she found me in, every time she thinks about it she wakes up in the night sweating as she has never seen anything like that before,” Moyo told Food Safety News.

The listeriosis outbreak began at the start of 2017 and was declared over in September 2018 with 1,065 confirmed cases and 218 deaths. It was traced to a ready-to-eat processed meat product called polony made at a plant in Polokwane run by Enterprise Foods, which is owned by Tiger Brands.

Lasting impact

Gina Moyo

Moyo said listeriosis has left a lasting emotional effect on her and her family. She has restricted her diet and is reluctant to eat out. Moyo also has anxiety for her children’s health, especially when they are at school as she has no control over what they are eating.

“We’ll have a function at work and they’ll say come and eat but I have to think 50 times before I eat anything. Already I had a problem but now it is worse because I have to find out what is in it, did they wash it, it messes with my mind. I don’t know if this is going to go or get slower. It makes me wonder how my kids never got ill, it is in the house, I keep thinking what if I would have lost a family member, what would have happened to my kids or my husband?”

The 44-year-old has two children. Her son is now 10 and a daughter of 13 years old.

“The kids don’t really understand what it is, except that their mother was away in hospital and she had this. At school I believe they are being taught about the bacteria itself and the fact that they need to be extra careful. I find my kids saying ‘mummy, before you put any food in the fridge you need to wash the apples’ or whatever it is and when you take it out you need to wash it,” she said.

Polony was not something the family ate all the time but as an occasional snack.

“I wouldn’t say I regularly ate it but I remember buying polony and viennas from Spar. When I got home after work I would be feeling hungry so I would eat a Vienna or some polony before supper. I don’t eat it anymore, I am too traumatized to even look at it. The outbreak came from one of their plants and they should have taken extra care in their food products,” said Moyo.

After the outbreak there was a lot of information about the bacteria and what to eat and avoid but before becoming sick Moyo said she had never heard of Listeria.

“Even after I was told I had this bacteria there was a lot I didn’t know. It was only after I went back to work, about four weeks after coming out of hospital, I heard on the news that listeriosis is a big thing and I got a call from the health agency to interview me about it. Nobody explained what it was or how it came about, I just thought it was one of those bacterias.”

Hospital admission
All the time Moyo was in hospital she was under quarantine as initial tests showed a bacterial infection but further analyses were needed to confirm it was Listeria. The bacterial infection was spreading through her body and had started to affect parts of the brain. During the eight days in hospital, only her husband could see her for a limited time and he needed to wear protective clothing.

Moyo said symptom onset was sudden as she was not feeling sick.

“I went home, made supper, we all ate supper and went to bed. Around midnight I woke up and I had a very high fever and I was shaking. I took some painkillers thinking I was catching the flu but the fever kept going up. Three times in the night I took medication and around 5 o’clock I woke up and I couldn’t feel my feet when I was stepping on the floor.”

After visiting her sister-in-law in hospital, Moyo was heading to work when she had a “locking” feeling in her hands and feet and lost all mobility.

“I drove to the nearest hospital and just as I got out of the car everything just stopped in my body. My hands and everything just totally locked, I could not move them but I was feeling pain. This continued for about a day. My hand was folded in a fist and it would not open. It was only after I started getting injections to try and kill the bacteria then I was able to open my hand. After two days I started to gain mobility. If I hadn’t turned to go to hospital I would be talking another thing as my temperature was very high.”

Moyo was a keen runner and the physician told her this fitness helped because her muscles fought the bacteria.

“I got spasms everywhere, I could see the muscles in my fingers and legs having the spasms. If I had gone to a general practitioner I think we would be talking a different story now and I would be nine feet under. I don’t know what made me go to a big hospital where I could get help from different sorts of doctors. If I had gone to a general practitioner they would have given me painkillers to bring the pain and fever down without doing the extra tests that the hospital did,” she said.

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