Picture: Luke McGregor/AP

Johannesburg - Serious shortcomings in the South African health system are putting workers in the health sector at great risk, the Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (Hospersa) said on Sunday.

Hospersa called for greater commitment to the health and safety of health workers on the commemoration of World Tuberculosis (TB) Day on Sunday, the union said in a statement.

"The union recognises that there are serious shortcomings in the already embattled South African health system leading to great risks being faced by workers in the health sector. Hospersa has urged the employers in the health sector, especially the department of health, to commit all necessary resources in fighting the high prevalence of TB among health care workers," it said.

World TB Day was intended to raise awareness about the disease and this year’s theme as announced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) was “It’s time”. The WHO reported that TB was the world’s deadliest infectious killer, claiming over 4500 lives a day. According to the WHO, the theme “It’s time” accentuated the urgency to act on commitments made by global leaders when they met at the first-ever United Nations (UN) high level meeting in September 2018.

Hospersa concurred with the WHO and believed it was time for the South African government to address the high prevalence of TB in the country, especially among health care workers, the union said.

“It is high time that TB prevention takes priority,” Hospersa spokesman Kevin Halama said in the statement. “It is also high time that the South African government addresses the occupational health and safety (OHS) shortcomings in public health facilities which continue to result in the high prevalence of TB among health care workers.

"The health care profession is losing many qualified professionals at an alarming rate, as many health care workers fear the high occupational risks, and those who contract TB contract multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB) and TB outside of the lungs, which is currently not compensated,” he said.

Being an airborne disease, TB was caused by bacteria that spread from person to person through microscopic droplets when released into the air. Health care workers were the most vulnerable when a person with untreated tuberculosis coughed, spoke, sneezed, spit, or laughed - occurrences common in waiting queues at the country’s hospitals and clinics.

In 2016, the WHO reported that South Africa had the second highest TB incidence among health care workers in the world. The WHO statistics revealed that SA accounted for 21 percent of reported incidents among health care workers and there were fears that the situation could be worse, as many cases were not reported.

“We demand that the department of health takes an active role in addressing the increasing cases among health care workers by setting aside a dedicated budget for routine screening, testing, and for the management of TB in health care workers,” Halama said.

Training staff members in infection prevention and control should be done on a regular basis, together with issuing certified N95 respiratory protective masks to health care workers and patients in hospital waiting areas, where the spread of TB was at higher risk, as sick patients spent many hours waiting in confined and often poorly ventilated areas.

"We also demand government to adhere to the OHS and infection control policies as well as call for the inclusion of extra-pulmonary TB in the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act,” Halama said.

African News Agency (ANA)