A task team from the Eastern Cape health department will reveal today that more than 180 babies from six hospitals in the former Transkei died in the first four months of this year alone.
The majority of the infants — many born premature to teenage mothers and weighing less than 1.5kg—were referred to the neonatal ward of the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha. This was confirmed to The Times last night by Siva Pillay, superintendent-general of health in the province.
Pillay ordered the investigation last week after officials reported an ‘‘unusually high’’ number of infant deaths at the hospitals. ‘‘We have a very serious problem and if we don’t sort it out we will have a crisis,’’ he said last night.
The revelations follow last week’s shock deaths of six premature babies in the neonatal unit of the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital from severe diarrhoea, probably caused by the killer klebsiella bacteria.
The Times reported yesterday that preliminary laboratory tests confirmed that the bottles used to feed the babies tested positive for the bacteria.
Also last week, 11 babies were confirmed to have died at the Natalspruit Hospital in Katlehong, east of Johannesburg — 10 babies were lost on May 11 and another on May 12.
Yesterday, a senior official in the Eastern Cape health department told The Times that when he visited Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital over the weekend, the ventilators in the neo-natal intensive care unit were switched off because there had been an oxygen leak in the ward. Leaking oxygen poses a severe fire risk. It was not yet clear whether the hospital’s lack of ventilators to treat the underdeveloped infants with immature lungs caused some of the babies to die.
“The ventilators have not been working. The problem is that they are mounted on the walls and could not be moved and there was an oxygen leak and the entire neonatal unit now has to operate without ventilators,” he said. “I established this when I visited there. There were too many ventilators there, but they had to be shut down once they detected the leak.”
Last night, Pillay said at least 40% of the dead infants were born to teenage mothers, some of whom were taking medication to deliberately induce premature birth, effectively killing their children. ‘‘They take these tablets hoping that the babies will be born before time,’’ he said.
‘‘Most of the babies are less than 1.5kg and the chances of surviving when they are that size are close to zero.’’ More than 50% of the infants were born to HIV-positive mothers, most of whom were not on anti-retrovirals. Nelson Mandela Academic is a referral hospital and some of the babies died while being transferred there from district and rural hospitals in the area. Pillay said the investigation revealed that hospitals in the areas that normally referred cases to Nelson Mandela Academic hospital reported 54 infant deaths in January, 31 in February, 46 in March and 50 in April.
The other five hospitals are Mthatha General hospital, St Barnabas hospital in Libode, St Patrick’s hospital in Bizana, Sipetu hospital near Mount Frere and Malizo Mpehle Hospital in Tsolo.
Yesterday, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi apologised to the country for the deaths of the 17 babies at the Natalspruit and Charlotte Maxeke hospitals. “I want to apologise publicly to the country as a whole because of this tragedy,” he said. Motsoaledi said infection control and overcrowding played a role in the deaths of the babies in Gauteng hospitals. “There was definitely a lapse in infection control,” he said. — Additional reporting by Judy Lelliott and Sapa