Increasing numbers of sick, premature babies from the Western Cape's rural areas are being turned away from Cape Town's tertiary hospitals and dying as a result.

This the message from senior doctors, who say that neonatal units in the city are suffering severe shortages of both staff and life-saving equipment.

Premature babies from towns including Paarl, Worcester and Saldanha, where there are no neonatal intensive care units, are being turned away "weekly" from city hospitals, doctors said.

The doctors asked not to be named.

The shortages of staff and equipment at Groote Schuur Hospital's neonatal and obstetrics units were similar to those experienced at Tygerberg, Mowbray and Somerset hospitals, a senior doctor said.

At Groote Schuur Hospital babies were "queueing up" for ventilators and having to "share" other life-saving equipment.

The hospital's incubators frequently broke down and babies have been "burnt" or become cold, instead of incubated, by faulty machines.

"We are still delivering good quality care in difficult circumstances. I don't want people to believe that the obstetric and newborn service is in total collapse," the doctor said.

Every day, however, babies are "packed" into the city's neonatal wards, which have insufficient staff and beds. Two babies often have to share an incubator, and more incubators had Babies weighing under 1 000g would probably soon be refused ventilation by all the city's hospitals, the source said.

At present, babies under 1 000g who are "very immature" are already refused ventilation.

The reported shortages at the Groote Schuur obstetrics and neonatal units included:

  • The closure of 15 maternity beds two weeks ago, when 100 beds in the hospital were closed.

  • Only 30 nurses and only two neonatologists, or doctors specialising in handling new-born babies. This was half the number of nurses at the unit five years ago, and a "marked reduction" in the number of neonatologists.

  • A "desperate shortage of equipment", a problem faced by all units in the hospital. It would reportedly cost R7-million to restock the unit with adequate equipment.

    The Groote Schuur neonatal unit urgently needs new incubators, ventilators and monitors.

    The monitors track a baby's heart rate, blood pressure and other vital functions.

    Democratic Alliance health spokesperson Robin Carlisle said in response to the doctors' statements that a "funding and political management crisis" was "bringing the Cape health department to its knees".

    Carlisle said: "The health of women and children has been declared a national priority in South Africa, and the Western Cape has always been the leader in the field.

    "Now - because of the squandering of funds on sport, parties and crony positions and overseas trips - there is not enough money to run hospital services.

    "In particular, the Peninsula maternal and neonatal service, considered to be the best model of its kind in the world, is being devastated by a shortage of staff, beds, equipment and supplies."

    "The DA re-iterates that the collapse of our health services cannot be avoided unless decisive and urgent action is taken. The most important action will be to re-finance and re-budget the health service."

    The health department could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. - Health Writer