'I was just doing my job'
Paediatrician who treated listeriosis-infected children from a Soweto crèche says it was a normal day on the job for her
Paediatrician Preeteeben Vallabh, who was integral to tracing the source of the world’s largest listeriosis outbreak, says she was just doing her job.
“For me, I did what I normally do. I am not taking credit.”
She was recalling the day when nine young children from the same family and crèche came into Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital with gastro-enteritis and fever on January 12.
It is standard protocol that when two or more children from the same school or household are sick with vomiting or diarrhoea, doctors investigate if a food-borne illness is the cause.
The children, aged two to four, had just had breakfast at their Klipspruit crèche when they started vomiting or developed diarrhoea. Some had become ill the day before.
The children were taken from the Chiawelo clinic in their neighbourhood and then to hospital.Vallabh was more vigilant in looking for listeriosis because doctors were aware of the listeria outbreak that had been declared in December.
“Of course it was a Friday,” laughs the head of the paediatric outpatient department.
She jokes about how it is hard to reach anyone on a Friday afternoon.
She called the City of Johannesburg a few times. Eventually, someone answered her call.
“I was fortunate,” she says with relief.
“I asked please if they could go down and get the specimens of the food that children had ingested.”
Johannesburg City staff went to the crèche on the same day to take samples. Vallabh then ensured she did every test needed.
“I called the infectious disease specialist to ensure I sent all the right specimens (blood, stool) to the laboratory to look for that particular organism and other causes that could have made children sick.”
The stool from the child and polony specimens all tested positive for the deadly listeria strain ST6 – that had been implicated as being to blame for the outbreak.
She said she was doing what she would in any case of food borne illness.
“We do this routinely," she said. "If it appears there is a food borne cause of illness. We contact health authorities to investigate a possible outbreak. We were more vigilant because of the listeria problems."
“I am just glad we got to the bottom of it. For me I did what I normally do. I am not taking credit.”South Africa is facing the world’s largest outbreak of listeriosis, with 183 deaths confirmed and the number expected to climb.
The food-borne illness is caused by a bacterium, listeria monocytogenes, which can grow in food, live and replicate in the fridge and give people mild gastro enteritis or lead to meningitis.
There have been 967 confirmed cases of the disease and this is expected to rise.
Seventy-six babies under the age of 28 days died, in their first month of life.