health gets a jab

Zinhle Mapumulo

Zinhle Mapumulo

Surprises, setbacks and some victories have taken place in the health sector this year.

The major highlight was the removal of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang from her job as health minister. She has now moved on to the national president's office. Her rule was always controversial and was regarded as destructive by her many critics.

The appointments of her replacement, Barbara Hogan - and her deputy, Molefi Sefularo, were seen as a welcome development in the war against Aids.

There is also the beginning of a stronger relationship between government and civil society, especially Aids lobby groups. Early this year the National Health Council adopted new guidelines for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission. The council agreed to provide dual therapy to pregnant women with HIV and their babies. The therapy includes the antiretroviral drug AZT.

In February, the KwaZulu-Natal health department suddenly charged a Manguzi doctor, Colin Pfaff, with misconduct after he implemented dual therapy. He was suspended but later reinstated after the health department withdrew the charges.

The following month a shocking report on child mortality was released. It revealed that more than 75000 children aged under five die each year in South Africa.

The report, titled Every death counts, also showed that 42000 of the deaths could have been avoided if the country had an adequate health system.

While the country was recovering from the shocking statistics, another bombshell was dropped on child mortality. It emerged that nearly 80 children had died in an Eastern Cape district because of unsafe tap water.

Last month, Zimbabwe's health system collapsed under the strain of a cholera outbreak. At least 10 people have died from cholera in South Africa. In Zimbabwe the death toll stands at more than 1100.

But 2008 has not been been all doom and gloom. There were a few victories.

In March, history was made when a cervical cancer vaccine known as Cervarix was registered by the Medicines Control Council.

There was also a ruling by the Cape High Court on a German doctor, Matthias Rath, who sold vitamins to HIV-infected people telling them that it worked like prescribed drugs.

The court ordered him to stop all clinical trials using multi-vitamins as they were unlawful - and also to stop publishing any material that promotes the medicinal effects of his flagship product, Vita Cell, until it was reviewed by the Medicines Control Council.

In October, a Cape Town fertility clinic opened one of the only dedicated laboratories for HIV-positive patients in the world - where couples can safely conceive and give birth to HIV-negative babies.

But in another scare, the outbreak of a disease identified as the arenavirus, left many people fearful and traumatised.

The virus has already claimed four lives.