Ntando Makhubu and Lubabalo Ngcukana, Johannesburg Times, April 23, 2008
Nearly 80 children have died in an Eastern Cape district over three months, while the authorities sat on an explosive report that largely blamed deadly tap water for the spate of deaths.
Despite clear evidence of a lethal epidemic in the Ukhahlamba District Municipality, which includes Barkly East, Maclear, Sterkspruit and Elliot, municipal authorities have yet to issue a public warning.
An official health report pointed to a breakdown in a water purification works in October last year and called for urgent action—but no action has been taken.
Now the health emergency is spreading. Bhisho health officials confirmed yesterday that another 62 children, ranging from infants to primary school children, had died in similar circumstances in neighbouring Sterkspruit. This is over and above the official figure of 15 deaths of children under the age of two in Barkly East.
The Sterkspruit deaths were also related to the water supply, the provincial health department confirmed last night.
“These babies are dying because of the dirty water they drink,” confirmed Siyanda Manana, director of communications at the health department in Bhisho.
The Daily Dispatch has a copy of the Barkly East report, which shows that the municipality’s health service was alerted a month ago and began investigating the deaths of 15 babies .
The babies had died from diarrhoea and other complications.
The report, only tabled last week at a closed council meeting and which has yet to be made public, exposed a public health disaster.
“Though there could be a multitude of issues that could contribute to the rise in diarrhoea cases during this period, and the consequential deaths, the most probable contributing factor could be ascribed to the microbiological water quality that did not meet the standards together with the way it is kept inside the houses,” the report concluded.
It recommended urgent action, including declaring an emergency in the area to save further lives, but to date this has not been done.
According to the Ukhahlamba’s Health Service section report it was “highly likely” that bacteria and other foreign particles in the water lay behind the deaths.
The report details the breakdown in the water purification system, saying the water quality had not met the required standards since October. It said the area’s chlorine pump had been malfunctioning, requiring chlorine to be manually added to the reservoir.
But the municipality blames the Cloete Joubert Hospital in Barkly East for the high number of deaths, saying the hospital failed to report them in time for a proper investigation to be done.
However, a senior hospital manager, who asked not be named, said they had informed the municipality but nothing was done until 15 deaths had been reported.