/ 23 April 2008

Municipality: No evidence water caused child deaths

There is no conclusive evidence that water problems caused the death of 78 children in the Eastern Cape, the Ukhahlamba district municipality said on Wednesday.

”There is currently no conclusive evidence that water is the cause,” said municipality manager Zolile Williams.

On Tuesday, the Dispatch Online said nearly 80 children had died in an Eastern Cape district due to unsafe tap water, and authorities had failed to take any action.

Despite evidence of a lethal epidemic in the Ukhahlamba district municipality (UKDM), which includes the towns of Barkly East, Maclear, Sterkspruit and Elliot, municipal authorities had not yet issued a public warning.

On Wednesday, Williams said the municipality believed a ”broader investigation” should be conducted to identify the ”contributory factors” to the child mortalities.

”[We should] not jump to unscientific conclusions that water quality is the only cause of the problem.”

He said the municipality’s experience informed them that children from three days to one year were not exposed to raw water since they got access to boiled water.

The municipality was engaged in investigating and improving the Barkly East water-treatment works to monitor the quality of water delivered to the communities. The Department of Health had also sent an investigating team to the area.

”Contingency plans will be developed as the investigation unfolds,” said Williams.

He said the number of children who have died within a short space of time was an ”unforgettable disaster”.

Williams said it was not the time for ”finger-pointing and blame-shifting.”

”[Our task] is to try to get to the bottom of the causes of the eruption of this epidemic and not to sensationalise the issue as if the municipality did not care about the crisis.”

Williams said environmental health practitioners were instructed to do a thorough investigation on the causes of the child mortalities when they learnt of the deaths at the Cloete Joubert Hospital.

”This was our own initiative out of concern for such a tragic loss of our young children …”

”Had it not been through our efforts, nobody would have known that so many children would have been lost,” said Williams.

On Tuesday, the Dispatch said an official health report indicated that there had been a breakdown in a water-purification works in October last year and called for urgent action, but no action had been taken.

The children had died from diarrhoea and other complications.

The health report, only tabled last week at a closed council meeting, recommended urgent action, including declaring an emergency in the area to save further lives, but this was not done, the Dispatch reported.

At the time Williams blamed the Cloete Joubert Hospital in Barkly East for the high number of deaths, saying it had failed to report them in time for a proper investigation.

He said the hospital had not conducted tests on stool samples, eliminating any chances of locating the cause of death.

However, a senior hospital manager, who asked not be named, said they had informed the municipality but nothing was done until 15 deaths were reported.

On Wednesday, Democratic Alliance health spokesperson Mike Waters called for a full inquiry and possible criminal charges of negligence against officials allegedly responsible for the contamination.

”It is outrageous that 78 children died while authorities allegedly sat on a report that largely blamed deadly tap water for the spate of deaths.”

Waters said that as Sterkspruit was on the Lesotho border, the DA was concerned un-purified water might find its way over the border, ”with international ramifications”. — Sapa