Listeriosis horror: How much-loved snack nearly killed dad
Number of listeriosis cases continue to rise but Tiger Brands still arguing
The number of confirmed listeriosis cases continues to rise, but at about half the rate than before the health department’s bombshell March 4 announcement that Tiger Brands’ Enterprise plant in Polokwane was the source of the outbreak.
The National Institute of Communicable Diseases’ (NICD) latest report on South Africa’s devastating listeriosis outbreak – the world’s worst on record – reveals that confirmed cases since last January now number 1,019, with 199 deaths.
One of the confirmed cases is that of 61-year-old Kogilan Naicker of Merebank, south of Durban, who spent three months in hospital before being transferred to a rehabilitation facility after contracting meningitis and listeriosis (Scroll down for his full story).
There were only eight new cases since the previous weekly report – one of them dating back to last October – compared with at least 30 at the height of the outbreak, the NICD pointed out.
On March 4, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi named three Enterprise products as being part of the recall – polony, smoked russians and frankfurters – but Tiger Brands announced later that it was recalling its entire range of ready-to-eat processed meats as a precaution.Significantly, in a bid to identify the source prior to that announcement, NICD officials had interviewed many listeriosis survivors, asking what they’d eaten in the month before falling ill – 86% said they’d eaten polony.
Tiger Brands is acknowledging that it is “a source” of the listeriosis outbreak – the “outbreak strain” having been found in its Polokwane plant – but insists it is not the only source.
“So many other ready-to-eat processed meat products have also been recalled,” said company spokesperson Nevashnee Naicker.
“And there has been a decline of about 75% in the market for processed meat since the March 4 announcement, as well as widespread education campaigns on how to avoid contracting food-borne diseases, so it’s not surprising that the rate of new listeriosis cases has slowed dramatically.”
Having protested for weeks that the company had not had sight of the detailed laboratory results which the NICD relied on to pinpoint the Enterprise Polokwane plant as the outbreak source, Tiger Brands attorneys sent the NICD a formal Promotion of Access to Information request last week.
“I can confirm that Tiger Brands is in possession of all the relevant laboratory reports, both culture and WGS reports,” said the NICD’s Dr Juno Thomas this week.
Naicker said Tiger Brands still had to “verfiy” those results.
“We’ve had experience of getting non-aligned results for the same sample from different labs.”The story of Kogilan Naicker
In mid-February, weeks before the health department’s “listeriosis source” announcement, Tiger Brands did a “soft recall” of its Mielie Kip chicken polony, after its own sample tests found “low” levels of Listeria.
In other words the manufacturer quietly removed it from trade.
That particular product used to be a much-loved snack for Naicker of Merebank, south of Durban.
Separated from his wife, the retired chemical laboratory technician was in good health and living alone when he was struck down by listeriosis last June.
Luckily his son Kershen visited him that afternoon, and, worried about his father’s condition, insisted that he spend the night in the family home.
By that evening Naicker was disorientated, could barely speak and was extremely noise-sensitive.
Early the next morning the family rushed him to the nearby Kingsway hospital. Two days later a lumbar puncture confirmed meningitis, tests identified Listeria and he was transferred to the hospital’s ICU.
But his conditioned worsened, despite the antibiotics. A scan revealed he had hydrocephalus – fluid build-up in the brain and, as the hospital had no neurosurgeon, he was rushed to St Augustine’s in Durban for an emergency operation to insert a temporary shunt to drain the fluid from his brain.
It was the beginning of a three-month ordeal, says Naicker’s daughter-in-law to be, Felicia Bisnath.
Three weeks later, the temporary shunt was removed and replaced with a permanent one, with a catheter under his skin – resembling a thick vein – draining fluid from his brain down into his abdomen.
Discharged from hospital, Naicker was moved to a rehabilitation facility, where he began the long battle to walk, talk and function again.“He couldn’t do a thing for himself,” Bisnath recalls. “He was wearing nappies, muttering under his breath, having seizures and unable to recognise himself.
“One day he caught sight of himself in a mirror and he reacted as if it was a stranger. We thought we’d lost him.”
At one point Naicker regressed 30 years and began talking to his deceased parents. “I actually remember that,” he told me. “It was like a dream but a lot more real … I really enjoyed having my dad back for a little while.”
Slowly his memory returned and he recovered mentally, but his physical recovery has taken much longer.
“I was always slim – about 56 kilos, but I dropped to just 40,” he said. “Wearing nappies and being fed, bathed and changed, it felt like I’d been reduced to a child.”
He was discharged in early September and has been living in the family home, with a full-time carer, ever since, slowly building up his strength. He’s now walking unaided.“Ten months on, I’d say I’m about 50 to 60% back to what I was,” he says. “I’ve still got quite a way to go, but I’m determined to get there.”
He has proved many of the medical professionals wrong. “At one point, one of the doctors told us to ‘Just take him home and give him love’,” Bisnath recalls. “They’d written off his chances of a full recovery.”It wasn’t until the health minister’s March 4 announcement that the family linked Naicker’s illness with the Mielie Kip polony he’d eaten regularly for years.
“We put him on a diet of fresh, healthy food when he came home in September, so he ate no polony at all,” Bisnath said. “Just as well!”
Naicker’s medical costs have totalled almost R1 million so far, most of it covered by his medical scheme, although not without a fight on the part of the family on occasion.
But there have been many other incidental costs, such as the full-time carer.
“I’m just so grateful for the love and support of my family – they have done so much for me, and I’ve caused them a lot of stress,” Naicker says.
“I really want to put this behind me, now.”