Relief on the way for Western Cape's overstretched post-mortem facilities

The Western Cape government says it is making good progress with a R281m Forensic Pathology Services laboratory in Observatory. (Candy Chan/GroundUp)
The Western Cape government says it is making good progress with a R281m Forensic Pathology Services laboratory in Observatory. (Candy Chan/GroundUp)

Dr Gavin Kirk of the Western Cape Forensic Pathology Service conducts, on average, three post-mortems a day.

He works at the Salt River mortuary which has 12 doctors on its staff, two of whom are currently away for training.

However, only six doctors can work at a time because of space restrictions, GroundUp reported. The mortuary can therefore handle a maximum of 18 cases a day. Besides the space limitations, Kirk says lighting and ventilation are poor.

From July 1 to 15, the facility received 198 cases, says Professor Lorna Martin, head of the forensic pathology service in the Western Cape.

Salt River Forensic Pathology Services is to be replaced by the new R281m purpose-built Observatory Forensic Pathology Facility (FPF), scheduled to open by May 2020.

Forensic pathology facilities at Tygerberg and Salt River have had to cope with a rising number of murder cases in the metro. Of the 1 744 cases of unnatural deaths examined in the metro so far this year, 943 were from gun violence, according to Martin.

Between 2016 and 2017, cases of gunshot deaths examined at Cape Town's forensic services increased by more than 56%. The large quantity of cases to be examined created a backlog of autopsies.

As a result, forensic services could not prioritise the autopsies of Muslim bodies and this delayed Muslim burials. (The Muslim religion requires the body of the deceased to be buried before sunset on the day of the death.)

'Far more autopsies per pathologist'

In 2017, the Western Cape Department of Health admitted that it "has not been able to maintain the expected 24-hour release period for Muslim bodies. The current average period for the release of bodies is six to seven days".

Currently, the average turnaround time at the Salt River mortuary from admission of body to examination is four days.

Located near the entrance of Groote Schuur hospital, the new 10 399m2, three-storey FPF aims to address the current stresses on the pathology service.

Included in the new facility are 26 autopsy tables, 360 refrigerated body spaces, 180 admission fridges and 180 dispatch fridges. The Salt River FPS, in comparison, has 10 autopsy tables, 150 permanent refrigerated body spaces, and 30 temporary refrigerated body spaces.

The completion of the Observatory Forensic Pathology Facility will better integrate the work of Forensic Pathology Services, the National Health Laboratory Service and the University of Cape Town Medical School.

There will also be two teaching and training dissection suites for students and academic staff.

Despite having more space at the new facility, Kirk acknowledged that staffing was still a separate issue.

"Our colleagues across the way at Tygerberg [Forensic Pathology Services] – both of us are really doing far more autopsies per pathologist than we should be doing," said Kirk.

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