“How many babies must die before the Eastern Cape Health Department gets its act together?”.  — Pine Pienaar

THE East London Hospital Complex (ELHC) has come under fire for its failure to notify health authorities of a serious infection outbreak at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital (CMH).

A record number of infants died at the hospital in January, prompting a plea from concerned staff to management to implement urgent hygiene control measures.

Internal records showed that killer superbugs were responsible for at least 13 of the deaths.

Only this week was the Health Department made aware of the outbreak, after a Dispatch investigation brought the crisis to their attention.

And despite exhaustive attempts, the Dispatch was unable to ascertain from any medical authority if there was a formal policy in place to respond to such emergencies.

Opposition parties said yesterday no “early warning system” was in place to detect a sudden increase in infant mortality at the East London Hospital Complex, which comprises Frere Hospital and CMH.

However, these claims were vehemently denied by provincial health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo.

“It is nonsense … complete nonsense … it is the responsibility of hospital management to inform the MEC. In this case it was not done, but an investigation is under way to find out why,” he said.

“There is a process and policy in place and when something happens the hospital must inform the department … the correct teams will be mobilised,” Kupelo added.

A team of epidemiologists, senior officials and doctors have been sent to the hospital as part of the investigation, Kupelo said.

Preliminary investigations by authorities revealed that 23 of the 29 babies were referrals from clinics and hospitals around East London.

The babies all recorded extremely low birth weight, below 1kg. Thirteen of them, according to Kupelo, had died from HIV-related complications.

Doctors also noted the superbug bacteria klebsiella on three newborn babies. However, the department at this stage could not conclude that there had been an outbreak of an epidemic, he said.

These early findings are distinctly different to records obtained by the Dispatch, which stated that an outbreak of infectious bacteria had occurred and deeply worried staff.

Kupelo would not say if the full findings from the investigation would be made public.

Critics waded into the department yesterday, with one medical professional saying the neonatal unit at CMH should have been shut down immediately.

South African Medical Association vice-chairperson Mark Sonderup said the hospital showed clear signs of a complete breakdown in infection control measures, and there was no excuse for it.

“Hospitals worldwide follow universal precautions to prevent any infections from reaching this proportion,” he said.

Such precautions include simple hand washing, using antiseptic soaps, and keeping tools and equipment clean.

Hospital records given to the Dispatch highlighted the “erratic” supply of antiseptic soap for handwashing, the absence of disposable paper towels, non-existent spray bottles and even a lack of toilet paper for staff and mothers.

Lack of hygiene control is chiefly to blame for the spread of bacterial infections.

Sonderup said: “It is crazy. It is like an accident waiting to happen. Especially with the infection being so prevalent … it is like standing on the N2 and waiting to be hit by a car.”

He said the spike in baby deaths should have set off alarm bells and the proper authority should have been notified.

“There is clearly a problem. An infection to that extent should force the hospital to shut the unit. It needs to be decontaminated immediately. They must change the stock, change hygiene practices and get the appropriate stock.

“Because they (superbugs) are common in hospitals and the healthcare setting in South Africa, we can easily transmit them from one patient to the other,” Sonderup said.

He said neonates (newborn babies) and premature babies would be the most sensitive to the infections.

Provincial Democratic Alliance health spokesperson Pine Pienaar said yesterday his party had been trying for years to introduce an “early warning system” to pick up “spikes in baby deaths”.

“How many babies must die before the Eastern Cape Health Department gets its act together,” he asked.

United Democratic Movement secretaryBongani Msomi said State hospitals were failing citizens.

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