Much-needed public debate has ensued following last week’s Mail & Guardian article “Toxic meltdown at forensic labs”, which asserts that our laboratories “have ground to a virtual halt” as a result of a “national backlog running almost 10 years behind”.
This article follows a similar assertion published by this newspaper last year that the country’s three state forensic chemistry laboratories have “all but collapsed”, but neither article refers to the health department’s plans to address these challenges.
My response emphasises the accreditation of laboratories, the addressing of vacancies in laboratories and mortuaries, and outlines plans to improve services, based on our vision for 2010-2014 to attain “a long and healthy life for all South Africans”, as part of our service delivery agreement for the health sector.
Forensic science has become an increasingly important element of the police investigation and justice process and requires improved cooperation between forensic chemistry laboratories, forensic mortuaries, the police and the justice system.
Medico-legal death investigation is an essential justice and health function. Its professionals play an important role in determining the cause and manner of death.
The need for and customers of forensic evidence have grown, causing the caseload of many laboratories to double or treble.
There is pressure on our laboratories to improve timelines and provide more accurate reports within the limited available human and financial resources.
Plans in place
The national forensic chemistry laboratories are divided into three primary sections: Toxicology, to provide analytical support for forensic pathologists and other clients in cases involving toxic substances; a blood-alcohol section to provide scientific evidence in support of drunk-driving prosecutions and to establish cause of death; and a food section to deal with chemical analysis of foodstuffs to monitor compliance with legislation.
The sections are situated in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria. Pretoria is responsible for The toxicology, blood-alcohol and food analysis of Northern Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. It is also responsible for the food analysis of the Free State, North West, Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.
Cape Town is responsible for the toxicology, blood-alcohol and food analysis of the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape. Johannesburg is responsible for the toxicology and blood-alcohol analysis of the Free State, North West and Southern Gauteng.
An amount of R11-million has been committed for the laboratories by the health minister this financial year for appointments and the procurement of technology and equipment. The treasury has approved additional funding of R10-million for the national forensic chemistry laboratories for the next financial year.
Progress has also been made in the accreditation of the laboratories.
The blood-alcohol section in Cape Town has been accredited, the laboratory in Pretoria has been assessed for quality improvement and the accreditation process for the Johannesburg laboratory will start next month.
The number of forensic chemistry analysts in Pretoria will increase from seven to 22, all to be appointed by the end of next month. They will increase from 19 to 34 in Cape Town.
A new head of the Johannesburg laboratory has also been appointed, assuming duty next month.
Forensic chemistry analysts will soon receive an occupational-specific dispensation, as approved by the bargaining council.
The Pretoria laboratory is testing a rapid toxicology device that would allow for the screening of 54 samples in 180 minutes.
Currently, we are able to screen only 10 toxicology samples in two days for 12 drugs. We plan to procure this device for all three laboratories if it promises to provide the intended output. Parallel to this, we have also published a bid for a rapid toxicology device.
Designated facilities in the forensic pathology services include a medico legal mortuary and undertakers premises for the purpose of storing bodies and, where applicable, the performance of post-mortems and autopsies.
A designated forensic mortuary should have adequate capacity to serve the community.
It should have a forensic pathologist or trained medical officer who has access to a forensic pathologist for consultation purposes.
Currently, we have filled 36 posts in Northern Cape, 22 in KwaZulu-Natal, 199 in Gauteng, 154 in Western Cape, 64 in North West, 55 in Mpumalanga, 66 in Limpopo, 124 in Eastern Cape and 55 in Free State, with a total of 189 vacant posts in our mortuaries.
We have 107 mortuaries and an additional 14 are under construction.
Our priority is to improve the health of the entire population through improved service delivery in all aspects of health provision at local, provincial and national levels.
Charity Bhengu is responsible for stakeholder relations and communication in the office of the director general of health.