MORE than 180 premature babies died at Mthatha's Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital since the beginning of this year, the Eastern Cape health department said yesterday.
The figure - well above the national average - was due to factors such as high HIV infection rates that were beyond the hospital's control, spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said.
However, the death rate was still unacceptable. "One death for us is one too many," he said.
Kupelo said that following a media report on deaths at the hospital, the department of health on Monday sent a team of senior clinicians there to establish the facts.
Their preliminary report showed that 54 premature babies died at the hospital in January this year, 31 in February, 46 in March and over 50 in April.
This was the equivalent of 45 deaths per 1000 births.
The World Health Organisation target was ten deaths per 1000 births, and the national figure in South Africa was 36.
The investigators' report showed that 23 of the January deaths were due to a lack of oxygen. They discovered that the compressor that supplied oxygen to the entire hospital had been malfunctioning since March last year, and stopped working in January.
Kupelo said the department would take disciplinary action against the clinical engineer at the hospital, the person responsible for ensuring that the oxygen supply functioned properly.
He said there were a number of factors that contributed to the high death rate that were beyond the control of either the hospital or the department.
Statistically, the chances of underweight premature babies surviving were about one in four.
In the Transkei, this was aggravated by the fact that the HIV rate among pregnant women was around 25%.
Twenty-one of the January deaths were babies born to HIV positive mothers.
Kupelo said many young women in the Transkei tried to conceal their pregnancies as long as possible, and went to antenatal clinics only late in pregnancy, too late for an effective course of antiretrovirals.
Untreated HIV infection weakened the foetal membrane, leading to premature birth.
Another complication was repeated termination of pregnancy in this age group.
Yet another factor was the distance between the district hospitals where the babies were born, and Nelson Mandela, to which they were referred when it became apparent they had problems.
By the time it reached Mthatha, it was often too late. - Sapa