Born to die

2010-05-30 10:17

A litany of human errors, faulty equipment and a hospital cover-up by senior medical staff were key ­factors in the deaths of 181 babies.

The deaths at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha over four months have shed light on South Africa’s alarmingly high infant mortality rates, which result in state hospitals having to bury ­babies in mass pauper graves.

City Press discovered the burial of 22 babies from the Chris Hani- Baragwanath Hospital in a mass grave at Elandsfontein Cemetery outside Johannesburg on Thursday.

The discovery was made as the country tries to come to terms with the unexplained spike in baby deaths at state hospitals this month. Six babies died of diarrhoea at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in ­Johannesburg in one week this month and 11 babies are reported to have died at Natalspruit Hospital in Katlehong in one day.

A City Press investigation at ­Nelson Mandela Hospital found that:
» The infection-control nurse at the hospital retired in January, but her post has still not been filled. ­Infection is a major contributor in infant deaths.
» There is a critical shortage of clinical engineers who are ­responsible for maintaining ­ventilators.
» Senior doctors presented ­inaccurate statistics to their bosses in Bhisho in an attempt to cover up poor management practices.
» Doctors failed to alert the ­department to the crisis, even though a few nurses had raised the alarm to management about unusually high death rate about a month ago.

“These problems were never ­reported to Bhisho. This situation was completely unacceptable and we needed to act,” one of the ­concerned nurses told City Press.

A senior health official confirmed that instead of reporting the 181 dead babies when inquiries were made by the department last week, one doctor gave a much lower ­figure, claiming there was nothing unusual happening at the neonatal ward.

Health MEC Phumulo Masualle this week dispatched a team of ­senior clinicians to ­establish the facts.

After just one day of examining the institution’s books and speaking to staff, the team found that there were “unacceptably high” death rates.

The task team said Masualle would have to “enforce strict and swift disciplinary measures as ­determined by proper investigations”.
It recommended that ­another task team be set up.

While heads may roll for the 54 deaths in January, 31 in February, 46 in March and 50 in April, Masualle denied that any were related to faulty ventilators or a lack of ­equipment. He instead attributed the deaths to external factors, ­including HIV.

“There are a number of factors that contributed to the high death rate that was beyond the control of either the hospital or the ­department,” he said.

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