Durban - Cancer patients at Addington Hospital have been left without life-saving treatment because both of the new radiation machines are out of order – either because they were not maintained or possibly even because of sabotage.
The department has paid a monthly R400 000 maintenance fee since buying the machines in 2010, but it cannot find the contract detailing what the obligation of the suppliers is in keeping the critical machines working.
Over the past week more than 100 patients have been turned away, including those in wheelchairs, according to a source at the hospital.
Dr Sibongile Zungu, head of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, confirmed that a high-level probe into the R120 million tender, along with a criminal investigation, were under way.
She said some department employees involved in the procurement had already been fired.
“We are also investigating whether the machines were intentionally broken or if they really went on the blink,” she said.
“I would shudder to think that patients were being used as pawns in a desperate bid to fleece the department.”
Said Zungu: “This issue is a web of corruption, lies and deceit. But, we will get to the bottom of it.”
Independent bio-medical ethicist Poonita Naidoo, who is also an activist for the Medical Rights Advocacy Network (Meran), warned that the patients who were being denied timeous radiation could become resistant to treatment, or die.
“This is a crisis. Patients could die while waiting for treatment,” Naidoo said. “It is the ethical obligation of the [health] department to get these patients treated at another facility.”
She said it was also worrying that the radiation machines were not serviced regularly.
“I find this whole situation shocking. These machines are supposed to have a service logbook and need to comply with the safety regulations of the Directorate of Radiation Control. An accident with these machines could have disastrous consequences.”
Naidoo described Addington’s oncology department as a world class facility.
“These machines are a scarce resource. To have them, but not in working order, is a sad state of affairs. This entire situation reeks of corruption. But, what is sad is that terminally ill patients are suffering because of greedy department officials and private companies.”
The source said that about two months ago, when the department began probing how the tender was awarded, the machines “mysteriously” broke down.
“During the tender investigation, it emerged the company had not entered into a contract for the maintenance plan, but was being paid for it. Days later, the machines stopped working and the company refused to fix them. The department could do nothing because there was no proof of the maintenance contract.”
The source confirmed that as a result there was a huge backlog in respect of patients needing radiation treatment.
Zungu said the tender for the machines was put out in the 2008/2009 financial year and was awarded in 2010.
“This process started before I joined the department,” she said, adding that a contingency plan was being put in place.
“We are trying to procure a new machine and will make sure no-one benefits from this contract. It is being sourced by the national treasury,” she said.
“There appear to be too many shenanigans going on in the health industry. Profits seem to be taking priority over patient care. We want to put an end to this.”
Zungu confirmed that cancer patients receiving treatment at the hospital’s oncology department were being affected.
“They are not getting regular treatment and this is a worry. The whole idea of radiation is to shrink tumours and lessen the gravity of the cancer. By not getting regular treatment, tumours can grow and patients can experience pain,” she said.
“But, patients who are in serious condition are being sent to the Grey’s Hospital oncology department, in Pietermaritzburg.”
Zungu said once the investigation was completed, they would advertise for a new maintenance contract. “Until then, we cannot touch the machines. That is why we are forced to buy a new one.”
Zungu said while the department was making headway with the “clean-up” at Addington Hospital, the rot ran deep.
“This is a tough job. We have put in measures to monitor stock but believe it or not, it is still going missing,” she said. “We are now looking at outsourcing this function instead of hiring people.”
This would ensure more accountability, she added.
“To ensure there are no hiccups over the festive season, I have deployed the medical manager from RK Khan Hospital, Dr Mtheheleli Ndlangisa, to Addington. Hopefully, he will be able to advocate for the doctors and see to their needs.
“We also want to ensure that all the theatres are up and running to cope with the festive season demands.”
Zungu said disciplinary processes were continuing at Addington and more employees had been fired in the past week. - Daily News