The father of a boy who fell sick during the Listeria outbreak in South Africa in 2017 and 2018 has told how the family is still dealing with the consequences.

James Nsayi is now 5 years old. He was diagnosed with listeriosis during the outbreak and suffers from epilepsy.

The outbreak was linked to ready-to-eat (RTE) meat products and caused at least 1,050 illnesses and 218 deaths. It was traced in March 2018 to an RTE processed meat product called polony made at a factory in Polokwane run by Enterprise Foods, then owned by Tiger Brands. In August this year, Tiger Brands agreed to sell its processed meats division, which includes Enterprise Foods.

Mario Nsayi, James’s father, said before becoming sick the youngster never had a problem with health and was a normal child.

“We had never been admitted to hospital before and never worried before. He was a good boy, playful and full of jokes. Since he became sick it has been a challenge for us as a family and then came the Coronavirus lockdown. His situation has changed our lives,” he said.

Initial illness
James is the youngest child of Mario and Emma. The oldest is 13-year-old Maxwell and 10-year-old Stalvie is in the middle.

“We normally bought polony and other sausages and James used to have it for lunch but as a young boy he used to just cut off a piece and eat it on its own so he had the plain one a lot. Sometimes Maxwell and Stalvie had it for lunch. Now we don’t eat it, since what happened I stopped buying it for the kids as I am scared something else will happen again,” said Mario, who was a tour guide in Cape Town before losing his job earlier this year because of the pandemic.

James Nsayi

James fell ill in September 2017 and was admitted to Somerset Hospital for one month with a fever, loss of appetite, and vomiting. He then had a seizure and was sent to Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.

“He was in the intensive care unit and they discovered it was listeriosis. He was in ICU for two weeks on a machine in a coma, he couldn’t breathe himself, the machine was keeping him alive. He stayed there for two weeks and became a bit better and was sent back to Somerset Hospital. After two weeks he had another seizure. All together James spent three months in hospital,” said Mario.

“The other kids are very traumatized, it (was) Maxwell’s birthday in October. I couldn’t celebrate it because James was very sick, it was a big problem. That has affected him as well. As a child, he says my birthday is not celebrated, not even a cake for me because mum and dad are in hospital. My mother was looking after the children while my wife and I rotated at hospital. We couldn’t leave James alone as it was too serious, you are worried all the time and don’t know what might happen next.

“He lost his memory so he had to learn my name, when he came home from hospital he couldn’t remember me, his brother, he forgot everybody so it was very difficult.”

Follow on problems
About six months later, James started having seizures. He was taken to hospital before being discharged after treatment. However, after another three months, he had another more serious seizure.

“I said to the doctor we need to understand what is going on as we can’t continue like this — seizure and back. One day he’ll have a seizure and we are not there and he is gone forever. They sent us back to Red Cross Hospital and they realized his brain was affected by listeriosis and he had epilepsy.”

Nobody in the family has epilepsy, according to Mario and he wanted to be sure before giving his son treatment.

“The doctor said if you want to save your son you have to do the treatment. If we don’t do it and he has a seizure then gone, finished, he is never coming back. At the beginning we were giving him medication in the morning, lunch and evening. Six months later he had a seizure again and the doctor said the dose needed increasing,” he said.

James was started on Epilim syrup but is now taking a tablet. He will be observed for two years and treatment may be changed if there are no more seizures.

Coping and moving forward
Mario said his son is not the same since the illness.

James Nsayi

“He is not like before. I am afraid to take him somewhere when it is too hot. I try to play soccer, rugby or tennis with him. We go in the garden to run and keep him fit. I always keep an eye on him. He is not like a normal child due to what he went through and the epilepsy caused by Listeria. For Maxwell or Stalvie I have no worries but James I always worry where is he, what is he doing, why is he quiet? The rooms are upstairs where we live and if they are watching TV downstairs every 10 minutes I must call James. It is a scared life, something else can happen if I am not there.”

At least part of the blame for the outbreak lies with the government, according to Mario.

“It is important for government inspectors to monitor food chain programs and make sure the product we are eating is safe. If the factory is not clean, it can affect citizens. At the end of the day it is extra cost for medication. Imagine, James spent three months in hospital, all that costs money,” he said.

“As consumers we go to the shops, I put what I buy in the fridge, but we cannot go and investigate. If I say I like polony let’s go and see how they make it, they’ll kick me out but the government has inspectors to make sure people like Tiger Brands are doing a proper job. The government gives them a license to make products the consumer will buy. It needs to make sure hygiene is a priority.”

Mario said it was important for other families going through similar things to find a way to cope.

“It is not something we planned ourselves, it was not our fault. It was an outbreak, there are consequences and people who fall victim of it. We need to accept it. Some people lost their lives to listeriosis and others recovered 100 percent. Unfortunately, I thought my son recovered but now he has epilepsy and this affects emotionally my life,” he said.

“As a parent we need to be courageous, James needs me and my wife and we need to make sure everything is balanced at home. We need to support the children. This Listeria story mustn’t affect James’s life or his future. I still have hope James will recover fully and one day it will be a thing of the past.”

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