Experts have decried traditional circumcision practices. File picture: Siegfreid Modola

Mthatha - The number of initiates who have died in the Eastern Cape since the beginning of the winter initiation season has risen to 35, the province's health department said on Wednesday.

“Over 180 boys have been admitted to hospital and 35 have died so far since the initiation season started,” spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said.

“We have observed issues that we believe are circumstances and contributing factors, including criminal elements, lack of discipline, improper conduct by those who are responsible for running the schools, greed, and the so-called-custom of being hijacked as a money-making scheme.”

On July 8, the number of deaths was 25, and 61 boys had been admitted to hospital.

At the time, the Community Development Foundation of SA had built a rescue centre in Lusikisiki, which housed 132 boys. Another rescue centre was being built in Libode.

The worst affected area remained Mthatha in the OR Tambo region.

The winter initiation season was expected to end when public schools re-opened in the province on July 21.

Kupelo said the department's role was limited to health intervention and it had set aside R20 million to “cater for any circumcision-related interventions”.

The department decided to combine medical male circumcision and traditional circumcision because it was a “sensitive matter” in the province.

“It is one package because we have to be sensitive in the province Äthis is a ritual that has been there for decades. As a department we promote safe circumcision. Our interest is in medical safety,” he said.

He said in hospitals medical male circumcision was being performed on all ages but the problem was in the traditional schools.

“Traditional schools are a challenge because of the risk. We have hired 37 additional 4x4's to go to the bush and we have hired private doctors who are going to go to schools and intervene medically.”

He said the doctors, who had been hired on a contractual basis for the initiation period, would also help the boys who were at risk as well as ensure that the boys who were critical be taken to hospital for medical treatment.

The department would assist the custodians of the custom because they were concerned.

“It is a traumatic experience for health workers because of the injuries and the septic level of the wounds Ä it is unnecessary and can be prevented,” he said.

“I have seen nurses breaking down because there is nothing beyond what they witness in these boys. Boys coming in with private parts spontaneously falling off because of mismanagement by people who have no clue of what they are doing in the bush.”

Kupelo said the doctors would go to the schools in the bushes and intervene at an early stage.

Earlier this month, in a village outside Mbizana, Madiba village, an initiation school was allegedly attacked by a group of other initiates from another tribe.

Thirteen boys escaped uninjured, and the initiation school was burned down.

The portfolio committee for health in the provincial legislature visited the rescue centre in Lusikisiki and the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital. They are expected to compile a report, table it and forward it to the department with their findings.