/ 12 July 2007

Newspaper exposes high baby deaths in hospital

Hundreds of newborns are reportedly dying every year at Frere Hospital’s overburdened maternity section in East London — many because of negligence, the Daily Dispatch reported on Thursday.

The situation is so bad that a cleaner delivered a baby in front of shocked students, it said. Exhausted staff have to abandon the nursery at night to assist doctors in theatre.

Mothers are also victims of negligence. A swab was left inside one patient after a Caesarean section, while another’s placenta was removed a full 24 hours after she gave birth.

A Dispatch investigating team spent nearly two months walking the maternity wards with hidden cameras, attending the mass burial of dead babies and interviewing medical staff.

Internal documents show senior management knew the situation was out of control for years, but did little to address the crisis. Minutes from weekly management meetings reveal admissions by doctors that patients were dying because of outright negligence, the newspaper said.


A total of 2 000 babies were stillborn in the past 14 years at the hospital, according to the abortions and stillbirth book in the labour ward. Last year’s figures appeared to be the highest on record, when at least 199 babies were stillborn.

Hospital staff concede in documents that ”most” maternal deaths and stillbirths ”are avoidable due to care”.

References are also made to an increase in the number of maternal and neo-natal deaths from 2005 to 2006.

At Haven Hills Cemetery, batches of up to 45 babies in tiny white coffins are being buried in mass pauper funerals every month. Two weeks ago, 43 babies were buried.

The hospital’s own documents point to crippling shortages of staff and equipment. As a result, a long-serving cleaner is known to have delivered babies and dispensed medication.

”I once saw a cleaner doing a delivery while there were students in the ward and she chased the students out because she said they don’t know what they’re doing,” a student nurse told the Dispatch.


On Thursday, the Eastern Cape department of health posted a full-page advertisement in response to 31 questions posed by the newspaper. The department disputed assertions on staff and equipment shortages.

It said a full after-hours medical team is on duty and there is adequate staff and equipment to accommodate its ”specific capacity for babies”. It also said, however, that it is in the process of recruiting more staff and purchasing more equipment for the ”extra load”.

In response to the allegation that a cleaner was seen delivering a baby, the department said the woman was a general assistant in the labour ward and an investigation will be conducted.

On the increase in stillbirths, it said the rise is inevitable in view of the annual increase of births.

The department said it will investigate the mass pauper burials. The hospital uses a service provider to remove bodies once a month from the maternity ward for pauper burials. It said it is not aware of any lawsuits filed against the hospital. — Sapa