Maverick Citizen


Concern in Komani after 120 children fall ill from suspected food poisoning

Concern in Komani after 120 children fall ill from suspected food poisoning
Children from three primary schools in Komani had to receive medical treatment when they fell ill after eating food sold by hawkers. (Photo: The Rep)

More than a hundred learners from Komani had to receive medical treatment after they bought and ate food from hawkers and shops in the town last week. The Eastern Cape MEC for Health has now called for more food safety inspections.

Late last week, 120 pupils had to be treated in hospitals in Komani – formerly Queenstown – when they fell ill after eating food they had bought from street hawkers.

Eastern Cape Department of Health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said state ambulances were called for 34 pupils on Thursday, 26 October. The children, with ages ranging between eight and 15, suffered abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. They were taken to the Frontier Hospital.

More pupils from another local school then also presented with similar food poisoning symptoms and they too needed medical attention. 

“In all, 120 pupils presented signs of itchiness, some had shortness of breath, some had a high temperature, but in others, vital signs were normal,” he said.

komani food poisoning

Children from three primary schools in Komani had to receive medical treatment when they fell ill after eating food sold by hawkers. (Photo: The Rep)

By Friday, the number had increased to 143 learners. Kupelo said the children ate scones, snacks and frozen drinks they bought from hawkers on the street.

One child had to be admitted to the intensive care unit. Kupelo said she was recovering.

Eastern Cape MEC for Health, Nomakhosazana Meth, has called for food safety inspections to be stepped up and for action to be taken against shop owners found to be selling expired goods.

There has been a spike in suspected food poisoning cases around the country in recent weeks, with four children reported to have died in early October after eating food bought from shops in Gauteng.

“We are calling on municipalities working with relevant stakeholders like law enforcement agencies to intensify the food safety inspection operations… we cannot afford to have shop owners selling expired goods to our children, which at times includes expired baby formula,” Meth said.

“The law must take its course against shop owners selling expired food items,” she said.

“Although tests are yet to confirm the cause of illness of the 143 learners, they all reported buying snacks and food from local hawkers or local shops.”

Meth said: “We welcome the food inspection blitz and raids by Buffalo City Metro and Enoch Mgijima Local Municipality. We are calling for all our municipalities to embark on similar raids on a regular basis and not only when there are cases of suspected food poisoning.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Joburg authorities crack down on spaza shops after deaths and community outrage

Calls to inspect school kitchens

The Democratic Alliance’s Horatio Hendricks said they supported Meth’s call for action to be taken against shop owners found to be selling expired goods, but added that the kitchens of schools where the nutrition programmes operated had to be included in these inspections.

He said information provided to the Eastern Cape legislature showed that school kitchens were last inspected in the 2019/20 financial year.

Education MEC Fundile Gade said: “Not all of the kitchens may comply with the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, and many may not have a certificate of acceptability.”

He said 20 schools a year would receive mobile kitchens costing R200,000 per container.

There are 1.6 million learners who depend on the school nutrition programme for their meals.

Earlier this year, Nocebo Mafani, programme manager for mental health at the Lilitha College of Nursing, presented a paper at a public health conference in Gqeberha on the outbreak of foodborne illness at Ikamva Lesizwe Public School in Kenton-on-Sea, Port Alfred.

On 14 February 2022, children who had a meal prepared as part of the school’s nutrition programme fell ill.

Mafani, also a member of the Intermediate Training Programme at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and part of the cohort from the Field Epidemiology Training Programme, said only one pupil became seriously ill following that incident. According to her findings, out of the 241 pupils who consumed the food, 126 presented symptoms of diarrhoea, headache, vomiting and abdominal cramps. 

She said the environment where the food for the learners was prepared had been tested and found to be unhygienic and not up to date. She said they explored many possibilities that could have led to the food being spoiled and came up with ideas to help schools improve their catering spaces.

“We also checked [water] reservoirs and there were no coliform bacteria. We only got faecal coliform from the left tap, while the right tap was clean.

“We also took stool and other samples for testing and Escherichia coli was detected. Because they (pupils) ate sour milk and pap,” said Mafani. 

She said the sour milk consumed by the pupils who fell ill was kept overnight inside a refrigerator that was not working.

“Some children said they could not eat because the sour milk had a bad smell,” said Mafani.

Her investigation team was made up of environmental officers, national and provincial members of the department of education’s school nutrition programme directorate, teachers, school governing bodies and the district clinical specialist teams from local municipalities.

“We all converged in one room and had robust discussions and recommendations were made to schools… for them to be taught on hygienic programmes that need to be maintained when dealing with food. 

“The department of education promised that together we would look after the areas where the food was prepared, and the supply chain systems would be evaluated and improved.”

In recent police raids on shops in Nelson Mandela Bay and Buffalo City metro, millions of rands worth of fake and expired food and cosmetics were seized. DM


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