SA’s health policies should be a key election issue

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South Africans can attest to the grim consequences of regressive stances on issues of public health: The disastrous HIV/Aids policies of former president Thabo Mbeki are said to have cost the lives of at least 400,000 South Africans. And while the policies of President Jacob Zuma’s administration have been more progressive, with the overhaul of the [b]Health Department[/b] being one of Zuma’s most apparent achievements during his term in office, the everyday experience of public health care in SA remains a struggle, writes Khadija Patel for [b]South Africa Votes 2014[/b] in a [s]Daily Maverick[/s] report. Patel says overcrowded hospitals, overworked hospital staff and a perennial shortage of medicines are some of the challenges that riddle the public health system. Yet, she points out, health is not the most pressing campaign issue during this election season. She argues that for the majority of South Africans who rely on public health services, the policies that govern these are often the difference between life and death.

Adults and children are sharing beds at [b]Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital[/b], Soweto, so severe is the overcrowding in some wards. As a result, [s]The Times[/s] reports, the head of the department of medicine at the hospital’s, Professor Ken Huddle, and 16 other senior doctors, wrote to the [s]SA Medical Journal[/s] asking that the Health department reopen more hospitals. Doctors said medicine shortages were not a problem but there had recently been a shortage of paediatric drips and an acute shortage of surgical gloves. But all agreed that supervision by senior staff wasexcellent. [b]Gauteng Department of Health’s[/b] Simon Zwane is quoted as saying: ‘We are aware of patient loads at Baragwanath, that is why we opened [b]Jabulani Hospital[/b], in Soweto, a few weeks ago. Once it is fully functional, it should relieve some of the pressure on Baragwanath.’

At the advent of democracy on 27 April 1994 [b]Baragwanath Hospital[/b] had a stellar reputation, receiving referral patients from far beyond South Africa’s borders. But, according to a [s]New Vision[/s] report, the facility that was once one of Africa’s finest hospitals is now plagued by broken equipment, a lack of basic medicine and despite having 3,200 of them, a lack of beds. ‘Things have got worse, it’s so bad, it’s actually frightening,’ the report quotes a black senior doctor at the hospital as saying. The report says that according to Dr Phopi Ramathuba of the [b]SA Medical Association Trade Union[/b], problems are ‘systemic’ and require a complete ‘overhaul’.

A shortage of a key chemotherapy drugs at [b]Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital[/b] has halted treatment for certain cancer patients, a Gauteng official said. However, he says in a [s]Health24[/s] report, the shortage was not because the supplier had not been paid, but was related to a stock shortage from the supplier’s side. [b]Gauteng Health Department[/b] spokesperson Simon Zwane said the department had worked hard to improve availability of essential drugs and had implemented interventions aimed at ‘improving efficiencies’ at the medical supplies depot.

In the UK, the country’s leading obstetrician says it is legitimate to ask whether understaffing of maternity care and labour wards is contributing to the country’s stubbornly high rates of baby death and brain damage. [s]The Guardian[/s] reports that Dr David Richmond, president of the [b]Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists[/b], has voiced alarm that nearly 300 babies a year are dying during or soon after birth with a further 1,200 ending up with brain damage or other serious health problems. The infant deaths, Richmond said, were due to a range of issues. But with maternity units struggling to cope with a baby boom over the past 10 years and a shortage of midwives and doctors, Richmond said it was ‘a legitimate question to ask’ whether pressure on resources was contributing to the tragic toll.

Full Daily Maverick report
Full report in The Times
Full New Vision report
Full Health24 report
Full report in The Guardian

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