A woman who lost her baby boy to the South African listeriosis outbreak has said the death left a void in her life.

Innocentia Phaahla was pregnant at the time of her illness. In late November 2017 she was hospitalized and gave birth to a stillborn child before being discharged. She was readmitted to hospital in early December and treated for listeriosis, after which she was discharged again two weeks later.

The 29-year-old told Food Safety News that the memory continues to haunt her emotionally.

“Listeriosis made me lose my baby. I delivered early and the baby was a stillborn. I was 22 to 24 weeks pregnant. They discharged me immediately after the delivery and then they told me they were going to call me for the placenta results. After a day or two they called me and said I must go to hospital immediately for treatment as the results showed I have listeriosis. They explained to me that the treatment is a hospital stay for 14 days,” she said.

The listeriosis outbreak began at the start of 2017 and ended in September 2018 with 1,065 confirmed cases and 218 deaths. It was traced in March 2018 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.

Whole-genome sequencing by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in South Africa confirmed the stillborn child contracted the sequence type 6 (ST6) outbreak strain. This type was found in environmental sampling swabs and ready-to-eat processed meat items from the production facility.

Unexpected loss

Innocentia Phaahla

Phaahla had named the baby boy Matlhogonolo, which means blessings, and said she was thankful for support from her family and fiancée.

“They gave me the support because the loss was a very drastic one, so unexpected. Everything was going well and then suddenly, boom, you know. So it was very disappointing. It is very bad, especially as it was an instant thing. It is not nice losing something special to you,” she said.

“It was an unexpected thing and since I am not working I had no other option than to cremate the body. When they asked me at the hospital what will you do with this body, if you are taking this baby for a burial it means you must bring a hearse, a coffin and the burial itself so I didn’t have any funds then so I decided for the baby to be cremated.”

Phaahla was a regular consumer of Enterprise polony and Russians but refuses to eat them now.

“Normally with my groceries I bought Enterprise polony. Usually I made a sandwich and cut the polony how I wanted it. Since then I am afraid to eat any polony, I don’t eat it now. I am just taking it slowly but it really affected me with eating. I no longer eat polony, so even if they say everything is ok now and back to normal I do not eat it.”

No going back to what caused illness
Enterprise polony has been back on supermarket shelves since late last year but Phaahla said she could not eat it just in case of another problem.

“I’ve read things saying they are clear now and the health agency approved it but I am still afraid because why did it happen the first time? I don’t have that assurance so I decided for myself not to have the polony because how did it come to the shelves the first time then we contracted listeriosis. Now they are assuring us everything is fine so what is the difference now?

“If you know what made you ill I don’t think you would go back to this thing again. Regardless of other people saying it is fine and back on the shelves, what happened the first time when it was on the shelf, they said it was fine and they approved it. So for me it doesn’t make a difference because it happened.”

Authorities also could have done more to prevent or reduce the size of the outbreak, according to Phaahla.

“If the authorities took serious precautions maybe they would realize that there was something wrong. But there had to be an outbreak first so they could get into the investigations and see what was the problem. If they did that first maybe the outbreak would not have happened or not been as large.”

Phaahla lives in Mamelodi, Pretoria, but frequently visited Lephalale in Limpopo to be with her fiancée. She also has a 9-year-old girl.

New arrival helps Innocentia cope
Her pregnancy had been going smoothly but she started feeling sick in her third trimester and, toward the end of November 2017, began experiencing a stiff neck and her health deteriorated rapidly.

In late November, Innocentia developed a fever and experienced contractions. She went to Steve Biko Hospital and doctors concluded she was in labor and the baby had to be delivered urgently.

After only 22 weeks of pregnancy, Innocentia gave birth to a stillborn. The fetus had a rash and a swollen stomach which prompted doctors to run additional tests. After she attended counselling, she was discharged from the hospital on the same day.

Distraught after the trauma, Innocentia went to Limpopo to be with her fiancée. However, she received a call from doctors in early December saying a swab of the placenta had tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

They explained that, because of her baby’s diagnosis, she needed to be readmitted to a hospital immediately. Innocentia was afraid to be treated by a different doctor, so travelled back to Steve Biko Hospital where she was also diagnosed with listeriosis. She was hospitalized for 14 days while being treated with antibiotics.

Phaahla now has a 10-month-old baby boy, called Kgothatso, which means my consoler or comforter.

“Now I have a small baby boy so I am happy with my decision of stopping eating the polony. What has helped me cope with the loss is I had to have another baby, I wouldn’t have coped if I hadn’t had another baby. After that tragic thing it was very bad and I had post-natal depression but now I am engaged and looking to the future,” she said.

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