Twelve percent of staff tested at KwaZulu-Natal’s biggest government-funded tuberculosis hospitals are infected with the disease because none of these facilities employ occupational health officers, say researchers.
On the eve of the third TB conference at Durban’s International Convention Centre yesterday, Martie van der Walt, the interim director of the Tuberculosis Epidemiology and Intervention Research Unit at the Medical Research Council in Pretoria, revealed the findings, saying the rate of infection “was alarmingly high and only the tip of the problem”.
“It is astonishing that none of these (workers’ infections) was picked up during routine screening processes. We have always known that health-care workers were at risk of infection, but until now this baseline assessment was never available. We’ve got the policies, but they’re not being used,” she said.
The research reveals that only two of the four hospitals have full-time nurses who are trained in occupational and health safety issues, only one of those nurses has postgraduate training, and none of the hospitals has occupational and health safety officers.
“All four occupational health and safety nurses said they felt they did not have the authority to implement changes to protect health-care workers in their hospitals,” says the report.
While the national Department of Health’s Fidel Hadebe did not respond to e-mails or phone calls from The Mercury yesterday, van der Walt said the department was briefed earlier this month. “Our next step is to brief the KZN provincial department,” she said.
Over 1 400 staff with occupational health and safety cards were used for the research at the Mangusi (Zululand), Merchiston (Port Shepstone), Doris Goodman (Ugu) and Gray’s (Pietermaritzburg) hospitals, including nurses, administrative and support staff.
In the report, 120 TB cases were identified, including 17 drug-resistant and 16 multi-drug resistant cases, and one extensively drug resistant case. Twenty-seven of those who had TB were also HIV-positive.
The majority of TB cases were among nurses (over 40 percent), followed by 30 percent in support staff. “Now we have to study in more detail where they’re getting it from,” she said.
Alex Pym, from the UKZN-based KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for TB and HIV, said the research suggested the TB infection rate of staff contracting TB in these hospitals was higher than in the general population. “It would very be interesting to know how many staff are employed at those hospitals in total.
“Occupational health and safety needs to be improved, and, although it is difficult to know the rate of infection of nurses, they are at a higher risk. There also has to be better control of patient-to-patient and patient-to-nurse infections,” he said.
Michelle Connolly of the Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of SA said she was not surprised by the findings.
“A new HR strategy document recently released by the national health department contains no directives on occupational health and safety or infection control. The research highlights the need for trade unions… to compel the employer to implement better infection control,” she said.