The health department is considering using the military to help distribute medicine in North West, where a protracted strike by the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) has brought the central pharmacy depot to a standstill.

Hospitals and clinics have only days left of essential supplies, placing lives at risk, according to civil-society organisations monitoring the crisis.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi was interacting with stakeholders to try to resolve the situation and officials were weighing up several practical options for getting medicines to patients, said the minister’s spokesman, Popo Maja.

"The issue needs to be addressed at a political level. There are pressure points in other provinces, but North West is top of the agenda. There is a recognition that urgent intervention is required to ensure lives are not at risk," said Maja.

Practical options for providing medicines to patients in the interim included using the military to distribute supplies and providing collection points, or setting up private sector collection points, he said on Monday.

Nehawu has tabled a series of demands that include salary increases and the dismissal of North West’s head of health, Thabo Lekalakala.

Gupta-linked company

The provincial legislature has laid charges against Lekalakala for his alleged involvement in a R30m mobile clinic contract awarded by his department to a Gupta-linked company called Mediosa. The Hawks and North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo announced an investigation in February.

Mahumapelo is under mounting political pressure and is expected to face a vote of no confidence in the provincial legislature on Tuesday. Not only is he being questioned about his links to the Gupta family, he is also set to face an investigation ordered by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan into Denel’s reported R1m bursary for his son.

Patients were being sent away from healthcare facilities empty-handed or with smaller quantities of medicines than usual, said Amir Shroufi, medical coordinator for Medicines Sans Frontières SA (MSF).

"Stock-outs are disastrous for patients. It is bad … for them emotionally and has quite serious economic consequences. Getting to clinics is expensive, and some just can’t afford it."

Patients with HIV who had to interrupt their treatment risked developing resistance to the virus, which had long-term health implications, he said.

MSF is part of the Stop Stock Outs Project, a consortium of six civil society organisations that monitors availability of key medicines in state facilities. On Friday it said some clinics could no longer immunise babies and at least five clinics had shut.