- An article ran by South Africa’s East London newspaper, ‘Daily Dispatch’, alleging an extraordinary high death rate of neonates at the public Frere Hospital in the city opens a sticky debate, with politicians and activists plastering the image of the ruling African National Congress.
But the government says despite the false alarm it has responded positively and on time.
The paper‘s article alleges that hundreds of newborns are dying annually at Frere Hospital‘s overburdened maternity section. ‘Daily Dispatch’ claims the institution’s own records blame the scale of negligence for the deaths.
"Two thousand babies were stillborn in the past 14 years at Frere, according to the Abortions and Stillbirth book in the labour ward,“ the paper alleges, describing the last year’s figures as the highest record of stillborn babies.
‘Daily Dispatch’ puts the hospital’s baby mortality rate above provincial and national statistics, which it alleges is contained in an unpublished report by a unit of the Medical Research Council.
A commentary by the paper’s deputy Editor, Andrew Trench, that there are "many truths behind the Frere baby death scandal," a tragedy resulted by “our collapsing public health system, bereft of funding, resources and skilled staff" has caused further panic within the provincial government.
Consequently, the health department of the Eastern Cape filed a swift reaction to the story, expressing extreme disappointment over the publication, blaming the paper for not bothering to “contact us for confirmation of facts before printing such a misleading statement."
The National Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was also on her toes: she immediately sent a team to the hospital to extract chaff from the wind.
Astonishingly, the team’s investigation proved the contrary.
"Basic equipment was available and interviews with the clinical staff and hospital management indicated that no baby has died as a result of the non-availability of equipment,” the team found. It describes as founded allegations that health workers “play God” to decide which patients live or die because of acute shortages of equipment.
"The general complement of doctors is reasonable but can be increased,“ she said, recommending the urgent need to increase the number of porters, messengers, general assistants and clerical staff.
"The Saving Babies Report - which aggregates the figures for 164 sites and considers 20% of births in South Africa - provides the perinatal mortality rate of 27.9/1000 live births."
Frere Hospital's rate was 29.2 for 2005, 34.5 for 2006 and 32.9 for 2007, the Health Minister said.
"The neonatal mortality rates per 1000 live births for 2005, 2006 and 2007 (to-date) were 5.5, 12.9 and 9.5 respectively. The Saving Babies report figure is 8.5/1000 live births. Adjustment also needs to be done here also.”
The Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) that has old scores to settle with the government is also at its best to create mountains out of the issue. Its tone was similar to that of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). They both accuse the Health Minister of protecting her provincial counterpart.
'It is very unfortunate that the report tabled by the minister of health is contradictory, in terms of not being able to publish the causes of death of the infants in this hospital,' said Xola Phakathi, COSATU Provincial Secretary.
For DA, the report has raised more questions than answers and that it would ask the health officials to clarify issues in parliament.
Mike Waters, the DA’s Health Spokesperson, expressed concerned over the minister’s remarks that no heads will roll after findings of catastrophically high death rates among new-borns at the hospital in recent years. He also accused her for not releasing the report because it may point fingers at specific practices and specific actions by hospital management.
The Frere furore has dominated the content of President Mbeki’s weekly letter. He used the letter to sample opinions on matters of national, regional or international concerns.
Mr Mbeki does not respond to COSATU, but decides to pick bones with DA, saying the party would accept the investigation report as factual only if it endorses the findings of the ‘Daily Dispatch’ as a faithful representation of facts.
“The simple truth is that the DA, perhaps taking advantage of the liberties afforded by post-modernism, is making the statement that everything is fact - truth corresponding with reality - if it communicates a negative message about the ANC and the government,” he said.
Mr Mbeki applauded the ANC members for being committed to the discovery of facts in their quest to “empower themselves, our movement and government to act correctly in the continuing struggle to transform our country to ensure that we achieve the objective of a better life for all our people.”
He would not understand why the DA and others would deviate from the facts and centre their “agenda on winning political victories over the ANC and the government and positioning themselves as the principal actors with regard to defining our country’s future.”
“As always we must continue to search for, respect and defend the truth. Sooner or later those who try to falsify reality to achieve partisan objectives discover that lies have very short legs. The struggle continues!”
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