KZN cancer patients denied treatment

2013-04-26 20:12

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Durban - The KwaZulu-Natal health department's failure to pay a maintenance contract for two radiotherapy machines has robbed hundreds of cancer patients at a Durban hospital of the critical treatment they need.

The department did not respond to requests for comment on accusations that it was not paying because a R120m tender for the state of the art machines was fraudulently obtained.

The non-payment has meant that about 100 patients a day who would have received the treatment at Durban's Addington Hospital have been referred to Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital over the last four months.

Professor Amo Jordaan, who headed Addington's oncology department since 1980 and quit last year over the failure to keep the machines operational, said up to 100 patients daily had been receiving radiotheraphy when the machines were up and running.

Also, it had seen Addington Hospital's waiting list for cancer treatment cut from eight months to two weeks.

"I became aware late last year of the fact that the provincial government was not paying the service contract of these very expensive machines, which was part of the tender award."

He said that when he queried the non-payment, fearing that his patients would be compromised should the company Tecmed stop servicing the machines, he received no response.

He said he had to read a response in a media interview with the head of the KwaZulu-Natal health department, Dr Sibongile Zungu, in Durban's afternoon newspaper, The Daily News.

Zungu told the newspaper in December that the department was investigating the R120m tender and that a criminal investigation was underway.

She told the newspaper that the tender for the machines was put out in the 2008/2009 financial year and was awarded in 2010.

Questions put to the department of health went unanswered.

Despite several phone calls and emails sent on 2, 3, 5, 11 and 26 April, no comment was forthcoming.


National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Natasha Ramkisson declined to comment on the tender.

Hawks spokesperson Paul Ramalako said he was not aware of any investigation.

Jordaan said: "I am not aware of any accusations made in court or any person or company sentenced in court for corruption in the oncology contract."

Zungu said in the newspaper interview the department was investigating whether the machines had been sabotaged, but staff members, who included oncologists and radio therapists, denied this.

Jordaan, as well as several of the staff members spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that they would lose their jobs.

Jordaan said the two machines - Varian Rapid Arc Linear Accelerators - had been very accurate in dealing with tumours, did not damage tissue next to the tumour and were much quicker than any other machines the department has.

Jordaan said the KwaZulu-Natal health department only offered radiotherapy at Grey's Hospital in Pietermaritzburg and the province's flagship Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital.

Only one other hospital in the country has similar machines.

Jordaan said he did not see any reason for the machines not to be operational while investigations were underway.


An oncologist said: "To be diagnosed with cancer and then told you can't be treated until it's too late... I don't know if we are doing a disservice."

He said staff had been "completely kept in the dark", but "we are the ones facing the patients. And they all ask what's going to happen to them in that time".

He said one of Albert Luthuli's three machines would be out of service for a month as it underwent maintenance, leaving the provincial health service with only three of its six radiotherapy machines in operation.

One patient kicked up a fuss about not receiving treatment, which prompted a senior official in the KwaZulu-Natal premier's office to intervene.

A copy of the senior official's email sent to Addington Hospital management reads: "The patient is seriously depressed and thinks we as a government don't care, especially looking at when she was diagnosed until now, we keep on moving the date [for radiotherapy] and in a way we are giving her a death sentence."

In its reply, the hospital confirmed that she was an oncology patient and had been referred to another hospital.

The hospital also said that "the radiation treatment machines at Addington broke down and these cannot be fixed immediately due to the... (contract) which needs to be finalised between the company and department of health".

That patient, Octavia Zuma, 57, said on Friday morning before she was due to be taken to Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital for treatment that she had been diagnosed last June with cervical cancer and had begun treatment on 5 March.

"I had to wait because I was told that the machines here are not functioning properly and that there is a backlog. So I had to wait a long time before they called me in for treatment."

She was concerned that she would not be going home to her four children in Hammarsdale.

"I was supposed to only be here for six weeks and this is my fifth week but I don’t think I will be going home anytime soon."


A senior staff member at the unit, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said she believed that since the machines had stopped working, about "50 to 80 patients have come down from radical treatment to palliative treatment".

Jordaan said radical treatment was the term used when the aim was to cure a patient, whereas palliative was to address pain and suffering before the patient died.

According to one radiotherapist, she believed Addington's waiting list had increased to between four and five months since the machines had stopped operating at the start of the year.

She denied that the machines were sabotaged.

"It's like having a car which is not maintained. Obviously it's going to give up at some time."

"We are actually going for psychological counselling... I think they [hospital management] noted there's been a change in our characters. There's been one too many outbursts from staff."

She said all the hospital's 15 radiographers, who were commuting daily to Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital, were receiving treatment.

Dave Smit, the Tecmed director who was involved in the installation of the machines, said that three years ago the company had been asked by police and health officials for documentation, which was then provided. He has not heard anything since.

Smit said the company had continued to service the machines for another ten months after the department stopped paying the service contract.

He said the department had been warned that maintenance would be stopped.

The maintenance contract was part of the tender and entailed Tecmed servicing the machines for five years with the company being paid monthly for carrying out the maintenance.

He said it would take a mere two hours to get the machines up and running.

According to the Daily News article the department has paid a monthly R400 000 maintenance fee since the machines were installed in 2010, but the department could not find the contract detailing what Tecmed's obligations were.

Read more on:    durban  |  health

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