The Murchison Hospital in the Ugu district in KwaZulu-Natal was incapacitated after its water supply was disrupted again at the weekend, in another in a long series of chronic water-system failures, interrupting the provision of critical services at district healthcare facility.
Frequent water-supply disruptions to the hospital have meant that doctors and nurses have been unable to wash their hands before or after treating patients, and that toilet facilities are inoperable and floors are difficult to keep clean. On Friday and Saturday last week, water supplies failed for the second time in a month, said a source at the hospital.
Close to one-million people live in the Ugu district. The latest water outages come despite assurances from the district municipality in 2017 that labour disputes, given as the cause of the problems, have been settled.
The situation posed a serious health risk to patients and medical staff, said the source who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. "The hospital should have been closed long ago, but instead of following the proper protocols it remains open. Everyone is at risk. The consequences of water disruptions are calamitous."
The prolonged disruptions have permanently blocked the sewerage system and caused airlocks in supply pipes. "The plumbing is damaged beyond repair," said the source.
"Even when the water is supplied by tanker from the municipality, the toilets can’t be flushed. The boiler has been broken for many months for the same reason. The hospital outsources all it laundry. Theatre staff have to source their own gowns."
Murchison hospital has 300 usable beds and is intended to serve a community of about 230,000 people, but patients are being referred from six outlying clinics. Many in-patients are HIV-positive and are therefore immunocompromised, making them highly susceptible to opportunistic infections, which are much more likely when handwashing is not possible, medical sources say.
Medical staff are also at risk, especially when dealing with a high volume of injuries associated with month-end weekends. At least one doctor who worked at Murchison Hospital contracted hepatitis A after exposure at the hospital, typically via faecal-oral transmission. Handwashing can prevent this type of infection.
After last weekend’s busy period at the hospital’s emergency outpatient ward, several medical personnel reported sick with diarrhoea on Monday.
The crisis at Murchison Hospital is being made worse by a failure of the hospital to implement a patient-handling protocol under national health policy. When asked about the protocol, Murchison Hospital’s public relations officer, Busi Cele, referred Business Day to the provincial health department which, in turn referred Business Day to the hospital.
A national Department of Health spokesperson confirmed on Monday that such an emergency protocol existed.
On Friday night, the province’s acting head of health, Dr Musa Gumede, said dealing with water disruptions was a municipal competency. He was unaware of the scale of the problem at Murchison Hospital and said that in such cases, an emergency protocol needed to be followed
A staff member in the Ugu municipality’s communications office said the hospital was supposed to receive piped water, but when there was an interruption, the municipality would send it tankers to fill the hospital’s reservoir. Further inquiries about the supply interruption at the weekend were not answered at the time of writing.