A final year high school student had to prepare for his exams from a hospital bed while recovering from listeriosis.

Meshack Mahlngu fell ill in late 2017 during South Africa’s Listeria outbreak — a week before he was scheduled to take his exams.

Mahlngu said the experience was “really mentally straining” as he was focused on his final exams. In South Africa, matriculation, also known as matric, is the final year of high school and the qualification received on graduating.

Impact on studies
“My situation was I contracted the disease while I was in the final year of school. I had it a week before I was taking my exams so spent the first month of them at hospital while I was diagnosed with listeriosis,” he told Food Safety News.

Meshack Mahlngu

“I took my exams, I wrote my first two papers in the hospital and managed to go back to school when I was discharged. I got the average result, to say I passed, but for the student I was I didn’t get the results I was expecting and could have done better.

“Through the time in school I didn’t have it easy up to that point but wouldn’t say it really affected me that much because I still tried to put myself in therapy and I’m trying to cope with things that I understand. I was in hospital for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) linked to the incident, as it was scary, I was still in school. There was some trauma after my illness but I’m physically OK now.”

Mahlngu lives in Johannesburg with his mum and has two younger sisters — one aged 15 and the other is 11.

“I was in the hospital for more than a month. My mum visited more than anyone, she was the one going through with all the experts when they gave me care and the expenses were doubling every time. I had never heard of Listeria or had food poisoning until I contracted the disease,” he said.

“There was a guy I knew a lot, he was a childhood friend from school and he died from listeriosis. He was a few years older than me at that time, he was 20 and I was 17.”

The now 21-year-old remembers being in church in August 2017 when he started to feel unwell.

“On Sunday at church I had a headache and the next day at school it became a severe headache and it continued the day after and then at night on the third day I decided to go to hospital. I was supposed to call an ambulance but managed to go there with my father. When we got there I was still having the headache and I got to the emergency room and was diagnosed there.”

College plans
The 2017 and 2018 listeriosis outbreak in South Africa was linked to ready-to-eat (RTE) meat products and caused more than 1,050 illnesses and at least 218 deaths.

It was traced in March 2018 to a RTE processed meat product called polony, which is similar to boloney, made at a factory in Polokwane run by Enterprise Foods, then-owned by Tiger Brands. In August 2020, Tiger Brands agreed to sell its processed meats division, which includes Enterprise Foods.

Mahlngu used to eat polony all the time at school and at home but now avoids it.

“I try to avoid a lot of products that are related to the ones that faced listeriosis, not because of Tiger Brands per se, just for health purposes. I believe they have made the correct arrangements to solve the mistakes they had that year. Mistakes happen, life is life, but I would appreciate an apology from them to the community of its customers. It wasn’t on purpose, they were not trying to kill us.”

The future for Mahlngu includes finishing a financial accounting course.

“I did my first year when I turned 18. I have two years left to finish the course. I am on hold due to financial difficulties but definitely want to finish it, that is my main goal right now,” he said.

“My future holds a lot of brightness and joy. I have a lot of plans that I believe will come true. I am pending on the college degree in financial accounting, if I can finish it that will be one of my short term goals.”

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