Johannesburg - Johannes Smit didn’t know he had scraped his right toe - that’s how insignificant the 1cm-long “scratch” seemed. It didn’t even draw blood.
But a day after fishing in a polluted stretch of the Vaal River on November 23 - uncharacteristically barefoot - the 56-year-old fisherman started to become agonisingly ill.
“My toe became swollen and started to turn blue and black,” recalls Smit, as he sits with his bandaged foot elevated in his Vanderbijlpark home.
“It was really sore. I felt naar (nauseous) and slept the whole way home from the airport after we fetched my son-in-law.”
At first, he and his wife, Lucienne, thought he had gout. They would never have imagined that Aeromonas hydrophila, a rare flesh-eating bacteria, had entered the cut, through the river’s murky waters.
Smit was admitted to a private hospital in Vanderbijlpark, where he was initially treated with antibiotics. Last week, in his fourth operation in as many weeks, his toe was amputated.
“You can put half your pinky in there,” says Smit, showing his gaping wound. “There’s a hole in there now. If they didn’t amputate, I would have lost my foot, my knee, my leg - and my life.”
Smit has spent the past 20 years fishing in the same spot in the Vaal, about 3km from the Vaal Barrage.
“It’s a lekker spot to catch fish,” he smiles. “But in the last while I’ve seen the water is not smelling right. It looked like there were worms in the water.”
The most common way of catching the bacterium - which is dispatched to humans from fecal-oral transmission - is through an open wound in contaminated water.
Smit tells how he always wears sandals, but on November 23, he waded barefoot in the water. “After I went to retrieve my fish - it was a nice big one - I must have scraped my toe on a rock but I didn’t even feel a cut or anything.”
“But it was probably open because that was why the dirty water went in,” interjects his wife, who tells how her husband is diabetic and usually looks after his feet.
Smit would not have even gone out to fish that day had he not lost his job a few days earlier. “He would have been at work and none of this would have happened,” she says, dismayed.
Smit now plans to take legal action against the Emfuleni municipality. “I’m going to sue the council for my toe because the water is so polluted with all this sewage. They must be held accountable. What will happen if a small child goes in there? It’s holiday time. People are out on the river on their boats and skis.
“There are so many people who fish in the Vaal I can’t be the first or the last person this has happened to.”
In a well-known case, in March 2009, historian RW Johnson contracted necrotising fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease, after the bacteria entered a cut on his foot while he swam in Mpenjathi lagoon in KwaZulu-Natal, polluted by sewage.
His leg had to be amputated above the knee.
In 2012, Peter Breedt, a doctor who lives in Hillcrest, west of Durban, contracted necrotising fasciitis through a cut on his leg after surf-skiing off a Durban beaches.
Professor Anthony Turton, a water expert, says Aeromonas hydrophila is associated with sewage contaminated water.
“It’s common cause that bacteria of that nature is found in polluted water, particularly water that carries sewage and other human waste.”
In a paper last November, entitled Water Pollution and South Africa’s Poor, Turton pointed out how of the 5.13 billion litres of effluent treated daily in the country, only 16% is to a standard safe for discharge back into the rivers and dams.
“The rest, the staggering sum of 4.3 billion litres daily, is discharged in untreated, or at best, partially treated form
“The uncontrolled nature of this sewage effluent is the biggest single course of water pollution in South Africa. Other sources of contamination pale into absolute insignificance when compared with the sheer volume of this effluent stream.
“When combined with another huge problem, the rising saline levels in rivers, this relentless discharge of sewage poses a widespread plethora of risks.”
Sewage effluent contains more than 100 known viruses from adenovirus, which causes colds, to rotavirus, which is directly associated with diarrheal risk to infants below the age of 5 and is a known risk to the poor, he says.
Meanwhile, Smit is adamant he will continue fishing in the Vaal. “But I will always wear boots from now on and take all the right precautions so this never happens again.”