Gauteng health authorities on Wednesday washed their hands of six premature babies dying of gastro, saying there had been “no specific acts of negligence”.
A report into the cause of the deaths listed “contributory factors” such as overcrowding, under-staffing and a lack of antiseptic sprays and paper towels at the hospital.
“Babies were infected by the norovirus, a relatively common gastrointestinal virus that is spread by contaminated hands, water or food,” provincial minister of health Qedani Mahlangu told reporters in Johannesburg.
“[But] the response of the hospital … was found to have been adequate. No specific acts of negligence in relation to the care and treatment of individual patients were identified.”
She acknowledged she should take some responsibility in the deaths, which occurred over a weekend in May at Charlotte Maxeke Academic hospital, but refused to admit to any negligence.
Professor Keith Bolton, who helped compile the report, said this had been an unusual case.
“This thing came like a veldfire throughout the unit and it was an unusual event,” said Bolton, who is also the head of paediatrics at Rahima Moosa Hospital.
“In this particular cluster of deaths, although the background showed the facilities were inadequate, we don’t think that those factors played a particular role in the babies’ deaths …”
Mahlangu said the families of the six dead babies would not be offered any compensation and had not been informed of the contents of the report.
“A number of people die in our hospitals for various reasons. It would be incorrect for the department to say to every family, ‘We are going to offer you compensation’.”
The fact that the hospital did not have paper towels was not the hospital CEO’s fault, Mahlangu said.
“I’ll be the first to say someone’s head must roll, but in this instance there is no basis to fire any human being or subject anyone to disciplinary procedures. There is no clear evidence.”
The report, compiled by eight medical experts, found the babies had died in a highly virulent outbreak. It went on to say that the “general level of medical care was good”.
But the rapid progression of the disease made it difficult to manage.
“No individual cases seemed to show any specific negligent medical care.”
However, it identified “deficiencies” at the facility, including a lack of routine supplies and equipment, such as towels and thermometers.
“Without towels, adequate hand washing cannot take place,” Mahlangu said.
The absence of lockers resulted in jackets and bags being placed on shelves in the ward, which could carry a virus into the space.
The design of the ventilation system and positioning of the washbasins were described as “structural challenges”.
Mahlangu said these problems would all be addressed and she hoped to get more funding to do this from private companies.
She had already lectured nurses about infection-control measures and retired nurses had been employed to educate hospital officials.
She hoped to employ more nurses to increase the ratio of nurses to babies.
Mahlangu said CEOs had received the nod from her to start procuring infection-control equipment directly, without having to go through the Gauteng Shared Service Centre.
From now on, hospital CEOs would be held accountable.
“However, with 192 000 babies born in Gauteng every year … that poses a huge challenge in the health system. We will be lying if we say to South Africans we will be in a position to deal with all these numbers,” said Mahlangu.
Bolton said it would be a futile exercise to guess where the virus had come from, but its origin was “probably from the community”.
“It seems to have disappeared almost as fast as it came … Thank the Lord.” — Sapa