Unnecessary baby deaths

2007-11-29 00:00

Twice within a period of three years, new-born babies have died from klebsiella in two Durban hospitals: 22 in 2005 at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital and another five now at the Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital. In each instance professional investigations have taken place and the cause has been identified as a failure to have proper infection control measures in place. In the first inquiry insufficient hand washing by staff was mentioned, while contaminated intravenous medication has been identified in respect of the most recent incidents. The human cost of this neglect and inefficiency is to be found not only in the deaths of vulnerable children, but also in the trauma and grief of their families.

Similar deaths at the Frere Hospital in East London earlier this year led, among other things, to a political fall-out with the national Deputy Minister of Health, Nosizwe Madlala-Routledge, being dismissed by President Thabo Mbeki for daring to differ publicly from her Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, in her frank assessment that something was seriously wrong. Tshabalala-Msimang has tended to be defensive of her department in these and other crises and to paper over the cracks.

Infants will always be the most likely victims of unsanitary hospital care. The recent baby deaths from klebsiella are a grim symptom of the increasingly run-down state of many government-controlled hospitals. Nurses are under pressure because of considerable staff vacancies, while administration is too often lax and inefficient. The KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Health, Peggy Nkonyeni, is considering the possibility of contracting outsiders to undertake cleaning duties in provincial hospitals. This could be a step in the right direction, but will it simply sidestep the unacceptable standards being followed by many existing staff? Will some disciplinary steps also be taken?

Palliative measures need to be accompanied by a major turn-around in training and mental attitude within the nursing profession. It could begin with a fresh visitation of the tenets of the Hippocratic Oath.

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