KwaZulu-Natal health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo.  Picture: SOWETAN
KwaZulu-Natal health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo. Picture: SOWETAN

A damning report by the South African Human Rights Commission has found that the KwaZulu-Natal health department has failed its cancer patients.

The commission’s 68-page report found that "the delays in the provision of‚ and in some cases the denial of‚ oncology services to cancer patients‚ some of whom are destitute and in need of healthcare‚ affects them in a most fundamental way".

"It poses a serious threat to the patients’ lives and the enjoyment of other rights. It cannot be denied that the rights to life and human dignity‚ which are intertwined in our Constitution are intertwined in this matter."

The commission’s investigation followed a complaint lodged by the DA’s Dr Imran Keeka‚ a member of the provincial legislature‚ in February 2016. He complained that a dire staffing crisis affecting oncology specialists and other medical staff‚ coupled with insufficient and nonfunctioning oncology machines and delays in treating patients, was adversely affecting cancer patients in the province.

The damning report, which will be released in full by the DA on Monday afternoon‚ found that there was "no doubt that the shortage of staff and nonfunctioning equipment adversely impact … the rendering of oncology services at the two hospitals".

The Human Rights Commission has recommended that KwaZulu-Natal premier Willies Mchunu investigate the role of embattled provincial health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo — who is already facing calls for his removal — in the current oncology crisis.

Interviews with patients and staff at the affected hospital revealed that there had been an increase in incidents of cancer in the province and that on average patients waited for about five months before seeing an oncologist and about eight months for radiotherapy. This means they are unable to detect cancer at an early stage or delay its progression‚ despite the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) findings on the importance of early diagnosis and treatment.

The Cancer Alliance told the commission that cancer cases and subsequent deaths could be reduced by prevention activities — if these were actually carried out.

The commission said the department "failed to allocate necessary and appropriate human and technological resources for oncology services".

"Accordingly the department of health both nationally and provincially failed to take reasonable measures to progressively realise the right to have access to healthcare services in the KwaZulu-Natal province."

The study found that while the investigation was confined to a few key hospitals‚ they believed that a comprehensive investigation was required throughout the province and reserved the right to initiate such a probe.

The department of health was ordered to immediately repair oncology machines and within 10 days devise a plan to deal with the backlog of patients and the staff crisis. They were also ordered to provide a detailed list of patients awaiting treatment as well as a list of patients who had died while waiting for treatment‚ including the cause of death.

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