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Durban – A recent shortage of chemotherapy medication was not unique to KwaZulu-Natal and not the fault of the provincial health department, member of the executive council (MEC) Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo said on Monday.

“We were quite disappointed to read big newspaper headlines yet again about a so-called oncology ‘crisis’ for KZN cancer patients. Now, this is most unfortunate on many levels. Firstly, this shortage of chemotherapy drugs is not our fault as a department; and it is not unique to KZN,” said Dhlomo at a press briefing in Durban.

The claims of shortages were made by the Democratic Alliance’s head of health in KZN, Dr Imraan Keeka, last week.

Keeka said the shortages had temporarily affected Addington Hospital and Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital (IALCH).

But Dhlomo said the drug shortage was countrywide and was “being attended to”. 

“Chemotherapy has not been stopped at any KZN public hospital. All the hospitals that render chemotherapy are providing the treatment,” he said.

“The only challenge that exists concerns the Paclitaxel drug, as the contracted supplier is not able to supply it in keeping with the contract. There is currently no alternative supplier.”

Not many suppliers were involved in the manufacture of chemotherapy/cytotoxic agents, he said, but the national health department was working to find alternative suppliers for importing via a Section 21 permit.

“There are many medicines used in chemotherapy and the selection of what combination is used depends on the condition and other dynamics of the patient. Upon checking stock holding, we have discovered that no fewer than 29 different chemotherapy drugs are available,” said Dhlomo.

The potential shortage in chemotherapy medication may have heightened fears amongst cancer patients in the province, who have been dealing with KwaZulu-Natal’s so-called “oncology crisis” for over a year.

Dhlomo and his department were singled out in a damning South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) report released last year as having “violated the rights of oncology patients at the Addington and Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospitals to have access to health care services as a result of their failure to apply with applicable norms and standards set out in legislation and policies”.

The report -- the result of a complaint laid by the DA in 2016 -- also found that the measures the provincial health department told the SAHRC it would put in place to end the crisis were “inadequate and unacceptable”.

At Monday’s press briefing though, Dhlomo told the media again that there was “no crisis regarding cancer treatment. We are, in fact, gradually turning the situation around.”

He said that thanks to the department’s interventions, there were seven fully functional linear accelerators (radiotherapy machines) in the province, higher than any other province in the country.

Three of the machines were at IALCH, two at Addington and one at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. The seventh machine was used as part of a public-private partnership at Queen Nandi and Ngwelezana Hospital complex.

Previously, the waiting time was between five to six months, said Dhlomo, adding that there was no waiting time for children who needed to see oncologists.

African News Agency (ANA)