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KwaZulu-Natal - A spate of attacks on health-care workers has alarm bells ringing amid fears that criminals will drive more nurses and doctors abroad.

It has also prompted a warning by the SA Medical Association (Sama) that its members will disrupt service at state hospitals and stop responding to late-night emergencies unless the health authorities implement stricter safety measures.

Since September more than five nurses have been attacked at state hospitals in Gauteng, East London and the Western Cape, according to the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa).

In the past two weeks, a compulsory community service doctor was brutally attacked and raped in Mtunzini on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast, and in the Eastern Cape a nurse was stabbed while asleep in a hospital dormitory.

Sama says it is concerned about the well-being of young doctors who are sent to areas they do not know, putting them at risk.

In the KZN incident, a 25-year-old Johannesburg doctor was doing her year’s service at a state hospital in Empangeni and staying in a rented house in Mtunzini.

Captain Bongeni Mdlalose, of the Empangeni police, said that a man had gained entry to the house through a window on

December 6.

“The suspect held the doctor at knifepoint and raped her,” said Mdlalose. “He then robbed her of her laptop, cellphone and other valuables before fleeing.”

Her colleague was asleep at the time and escaped unharmed.

The head of the KZN Department of Health, Sibongile Zungu, condemned the incident and described it as “sick and sad”.

She said the doctor was a young professional who had just started her career to serve those in need.

“This makes me angry. This woman’s dreams have been shattered,” she said. “It is incidents like these that motivate professionals to leave our country.”

Commenting on the calls for more security for doctors, Zungu said millions of rand were spent annually to protect health-care workers.

“This is not about security – it is about the crime in our country. It is a social and behavioural issue. Spending more… will not change anything until mindsets… change.”

Sama condemned the attacks, especially on young health-care workers who often left their homes to complete their community service.

The association’s chairwoman, Phophi Ramathuba, said she did not believe the government was doing enough to protect health workers.

“We have been making a lot of noise, but there has been no movement by the department,” she said.

“It is time for anarchy. We will shut the hospitals down in memory of our colleagues who have been raped, killed or attacked.

“The department officials probably won’t give a damn because they use private medical facilities. But they must remember it is the ordinary man in the street who has voted them into power. He will not appreciate hospitals shutting down.”

Ramathuba described the rape of the doctor as shocking and barbaric.

“It seems that our contribution to health care in this country is not being valued. As a woman and a doctor, I feel for my colleague, who was violated in the worst possible way.”

She said that if security measures were not stepped up around doctors, they would refuse to attend to medical emergencies at night.

“The young, innocent doctors are easy prey for criminals. The department needs to ensure that they are safe. These kinds of incidents are causing our doctors to leave in droves to go abroad.”

In July this year, a nurse from Bara’s St Johns Eye Hospital was stabbed 10 times in the hospital corridor.

Another, 34, was shot and killed at the Mhlakulo Community Health Centre in Port Elizabeth, in August.

Two nurses were attacked by a patient in August at Mmametlhake Hospital outside Hammanskraal.

Last week, a nurse was stabbed several times at SS Gida Hospital in Keiskammahoek in the Eastern Cape while asleep in the nurses’ rooms within the hospital. She is still in hospital

Joe Maila, a spokesman for the national Department of Health, refused to comment on Sama’s strike threat.

“All I can say is that we are taking the safety and security of doctors very seriously,” he said. “This is a non-negotiable area.”

Denosa secretary-general, Thembeka Gwagwa, said she was shocked and angry at the recent spate of attacks.

“We believe that the department of health needs to take care of its workers. It is their legal obligation,” said Gwagwa.

KZN violence monitor Mary De Haas described the rape of the doctor as an “absolute disgrace”.

“It is the prerogative of the Department of Health to ensure these doctors work under safe conditions,” she said. “The doctors risk their lives and go out and work in areas that are crime ridden. This type of incident is going to make them less willing to work away from home.”

A spokeswoman for the Health Professions Council of SA, Bertha Peters-Scheepers, said: “It is alarming that this horrific crime seems to be on the increase against the very people who should be honoured by their communities for the work they do. They work under stressful circumstances and should not need to fear for their own safety.”

Independent bio-medical ethicist, Poonita Naidoo, a Medical Rights Advocacy Network co-ordinator, said that because service training was compulsory, the safety and security of young graduates who lived away from home had to be assured.

“The Department of Health is liable for damages should these doctors be exposed to any harm – whether these graduates were attacked during working hours or not, whether they were in rented accommodation outside the hospital or not. The fact remains that they are vulnerable and are forced to live in an insecure environment,” said Naidoo.

“When ministers visit these areas close to election time, they do so with a posse of armed and eagle eyed (guards). The community of health practitioners and patients deserve equal protection.” - Daily News