Babies dying in droves in poor area
Chris Ndaliso, The Witness
Pietermaritzburg - Babies and toddlers under the age of five are dying in droves of malnutrition and HIV- and Aids-related complications in the poverty-stricken Bergville area in KwaZulu-Natal.
Between January and October this year, 15% of the children under the age of five died of severe malnutrition in the area.
This percentage is based on fewer than 50 babies in total.
Mothers blame unemployment and poverty for their children’s deaths.
Bergville comes under Okhahlamba Local Municipality, which in turn comes under uThukela District Municipality.
Bergville has six clinics.
Records from the Health Department show that from January to October this year, eight percent of girls under 18 gave birth in the area, while 7.4% aged 35 and over had babies.
During a visit by The Witness to Estulweni village, just outside Bergville, last week, young mothers claimed that their children succumb to malnutrition and diarrhoea.
They say the diarrhoea is caused by the unpurified water they drink because they share water from nearby streams with livestock.
Almost 16 years into democracy, the villagers have a borehole as their only source of water, so some villagers fetch water from the streams.
Nelisiwe Hlongwane’s second baby died in 2009, just one month after birth. She is pregnant again and depends on her husband, who works in Durban.
“We are unemployed. We are hungry and our children are dying. Government says we must do things for ourselves.
“What must we do? With what? Because we have no resources in the first place,” said Hlongwane, 25.
Electricity and new toilets are the only developments they have seen in the area, she said.
Infant milk formula supply stopped
Some mothers confessed to feeding their babies watered-down porridge and tea or a solution of water and sugar.
Hlongwane said not much is done to help the unemployed feed their children.
The malnutrition problem has been exacerbated by the Emmaus Hospital’s decision to stop supplying mothers with infant milk formula.
A 16-year-old mother told The Witness that another contributing factor is that girls give birth and dump their children with their grandmothers, who are themselves struggling to get by.
“Although I’ve never received formula from the hospital, those who did say they are struggling since the supply was terminated,” said the unemployed mother of a six-month-old baby boy.
She fell pregnant while in Grade 9 last year and has left school to look after her baby.
Area councillor Vika Mlotshwa confirmed that young children die of both malnutrition and other poverty-related diseases.
He said about 70% of the population in Bergville is unemployed and this has added to the problem.
Malnutrition fatality rate rises
“It’s a sad fact that young babies have to perish in such huge numbers,” said Mlotshwa.
Provincial Health Department spokesperson Chris Maxon said that according to the District Health Information System, the malnutrition case fatality rate for Okhahlamba/Bergville sub-district was 9.3 % between January and December 2009.
The figure increased to 15% from January to October this year.
“These are malnutrition-related figures. With regard to HIV-related deaths, we do not collect that data,” said Maxon.
He said babies who are fed infant milk formula are at higher risk of getting diarrhoeal diseases - often because of the poor conditions under which the formula is prepared - and this eventually results in malnutrition.
“It has then been agreed by the department that mothers will now be extensively counselled and encouraged to breastfeed even if they tested HIV-positive during pregnancy,” said Maxon.
Underdevelopment and lack of basic services such as clean water, combined with the high unemployment rate, are considered to be the reasons behind health problems in the area.
The provision of infant milk formula in areas such as Bergville is problematic as it leads to mix-feeding, a combination of bottle and breast feeding.
From January 1, the province will not be giving free formula milk, said Maxon.