Tag: South Africa

“Silent Disease” Outed at African Hepatitis Convention

Many South Africans with hepatitis go undiagnosed

By Liezl Human for GroundUp

The African Viral Hepatitis Convention, held in Cape Town, has put a spotlight on the need to eliminate from the African continent hepatitis B and C, the “silent disease”.

The World Health Organisation(WHO) says Africa “accounts for 63% of new hepatitis B infections, and yet only 18% of newborns in the region receive the hepatitis B birth-dose vaccination”.

In South Africa, 2.8-million people are infected with hepatitis B and 240 000 have chronic hepatitis C. Of those with hepatitis B, only about 23% have been diagnosed.

The convention, hosted by The Gastroenterology and Hepatology Association of sub-Saharan Africa (GHASSA) in conjunction with the International Hepato-Pancreato Biliary Association (IHPBA), took place over several days.

On the last day, a declaration was adopted, demanding the “immediate prioritisation of national elimination plans”, allocation of resources domestically, and the political commitment to eliminate hepatitis.

“As a community of people living with viral hepatitis, advocates for those living with viral hepatitis, healthcare workers, academics and those who simply care, we say no more … All the tools to eliminate viral hepatitis are available and are uncomplicated interventions,” the declaration read.

Hepatitis B

– Liver infection caused by the Hepatitis B virus

– Usually transmitted from mother to child, as well as between children under the age of five, and via injection drug use and sex in adults

Source: Wikipedia

Hepatitis C

– Liver infection caused by the Hepatitis C virus

– Usually transmitted by injection drug use, poorly sterilised medical equipment, needlestick injuries, and transfusions

Source: Wikipedia

The convention follows a WHO 2024 global hepatitis report that says globally deaths are on the rise and that 1.3 million people died of viral hepatitis in 2022, with hepatitis B causing 83% and hepatitis C causing 17% of deaths.

In Africa, 300,000 people died from hepatitis B and C. This is despite having the “knowledge and tools to prevent, diagnose and treat viral hepatitis”.

There are vaccines available for hepatitis B, and hepatitis C can be cured with medication. Hepatitis B is spread through blood and bodily fluids.

Hepatitis-related liver cancer rates and deaths are also on the rise, according to the WHO report.

At the convention Mark Sonderup, a hepatologist at Groote Schuur Hospital, said, “Inaction now results in a bigger problem later.”

Danjuma Adda, former president of the World Hepatitis Alliance, spoke about stigma as barriers to receiving care.

“Because of high stigma we have low testing because people are not motivated to be tested … We need to change the narrative,” he said.

Anban Pillay, the deputy director-general of the National Department of Health, said that at a national level, guidelines around hepatitis education and treatment can be created, but there “has to be advocacy at a local level” too. He also stressed the importance that voices of patients on the challenges they face be heard at a national and provincial level.

Pillay said that the conference had highlighted “gaps in our programme” and that it will identify and implement interventions that have worked in other countries.

At the end of the last session of the hepatitis convention, the declaration was read and signed by those in attendance.

Republished from GroundUp under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Source: GroundUp

Signing of NHI Bill into Law has no Effect Yet

Disappointment as President prepares to sign flawed bill

The announcement that President Cyril Ramaphosa will sign the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill into law this week without seeking much-needed revisions is disappointing, although not unexpected, according to the Health Funders Association (HFA).

“The HFA has been preparing for this day, despite our strong belief that a more collaborative approach between the public and private sectors is essential for achieving Universal Health Coverage [UHC] in a timely and effective manner,” says Craig Comrie, HFA Chairperson.

“We are deeply disappointed that the opportunity to review certain flawed sections of the NHI Bill has been missed, as the HFA sees enormous potential for leveraging the strengths of both public and private healthcare to expand access to quality care for all South Africans.

“Throughout the NHI Bill’s development process, the association submitted recommendations centred on collaboration and maximising the sustainability of healthcare provision through the use of a multi-funding model to build the South African healthcare system,” he says.

“Even with the President signing the NHI Bill into law on Wednesday, there will be no immediate impact on medical scheme benefits and contributions, nor any tax changes. The HFA is well prepared to defend the rights of medical scheme members and all South Africans to choose privately funded healthcare, where necessary.

“Our focus, as always, is on protecting and expanding access to quality healthcare for all South Africans. As we await the finer details of the President’s signing, we wish to assure all South Africans that we are ready for this next step,” Comrie says.

“The HFA will continue monitoring developments closely and share updates as necessary. Our goal remains the same: a healthcare system that works for all South Africans, and we will take all necessary actions to support that goal.”

Ramaphosa to Sign NHI into Law: What does This Mean for SA Doctors – and Can We Fix It?

President Cyril Ramaphosa has finished “looking for a pen” to sign the National Health Insurance (NHI) bill into law, and is set to approve the legislation on Wednesday, May 15.

While this “electioneering” move comes as a surprise to many, some experts anticipated this timing. With its signing, the legal battles over it will now begin. An array of medical and professional associations are readying their court papers, armed with numerous expert objections and petitions finding fault with the bill, widely criticised as unaffordable, demoralising and disastrous. But what will it look like in the end? Is it in fact an opportunity to fix public and private healthcare for the better?

To understand the NHI bill’s consequences and possible remedies better, Quicknews asked medico-legal specialist Martin Versfeld of Webber Wentzel & Associates about the legal aspects of the NHI bill, what it means for doctors in private practice, what can be done to ensure it fixes SA healthcare instead of damaging it further, and what its likely outcomes will be.

“The inequality of South Africa’s healthcare situation is not lost on anyone, least of all those in healthcare,” Martin says. “I think every healthcare professional, every hospital group, every healthcare provider recognises a need to assist South Africans more generally and to ensure there is better access to healthcare.”

Examination of the NHI bill has shown that it will simply exacerbate the problem, with possible wider consequences for the country’s economy (If Eskom’s load shedding is anything to go by – Ed). Viable alternatives towards repairing the beleaguered public healthcare system have been suggested, but political pressures have seen the bill signed into law. At this point, it is a certainty that it will face a barrage of litigation.

NHI, the mirage on the horizon

While the NHI is now set to be signed into law, there were efforts to persuade President Ramaphosa to not sign it. Recently, a South African Health Care Practitioners (SAHCP) petition was presented that contains a number of points and precedent to other laws that were rejected due to serious concerns. This petition had gathered 23 000 signatures from healthcare professionals.

Martin believes that it is a very effective petition, and it may have ‘resonated’ except for its timing. “The challenge that we face here is that it is an election year,” he points out. So while this petition and other appeals to the President to reject the legislation might have merit, and may have otherwise succeeded, it is extremely unlikely that Ramaphosa could go against his party’s goals.

“The NHI is a centrepiece, arguably, of the ANC’s election manifesto and they will be very reluctant to signal a climb-down at this point. So I think Cyril, as much as he might personally take a view that, under different circumstances, would be appropriate – I think he’d be under enormous pressure simply to sign the legislation into law.”

The time to act, with the most impact, will be after the elections.

As soon as NHI is signed into law, there will be a tidal wave of litigation, predicts Martin. This will be the next best time to challenge it. There are two avenues; whether the entire legislation is struck down as unconstitutional, or when it comes to the nitty gritty of implementation, when “the plethora of regulations are introduced.”

Even absent the court battles that will be waged, it will take years to fully implement NHI. Martin points out the length of the process, “The NHI is not going to be implemented to the full extent of what the legislation provides from the get go,” he says – it simply can’t be.

“It will be introduced incrementally by way of the introduction of regulations. So what I would expect as a first step would be to introduce the infrastructure required in order to create this collective pooling of funds.

“They will also be regulations which empower Nicholas Crisp and others to employ the essential staffing required to start to implement NHI.

“So it’s envisaged that there will be a very long process.”

‘Decades of litigation’

“Once the legislation takes effect, of course, the doctors and other stakeholders, including the medical schemes, will have an opportunity to carefully review the legislation and take a view as to whether or not they wish to, at this juncture, challenge certain aspects of that legislation on the basis of the – amongst other things – lack of constitutionality thereof.”

Martin stresses that the objections that have been lodged and engagements made to-date are not wasted effort. “It’s very important that the court sees and appreciates all the efforts that the industry has made in order to engage practically and meaningfully with the government. If nothing else, it puts the government on the back foot and the healthcare providers on the front foot.”

“This is not a matter which anyone is going to take lying down,” he says.

The South African Medical Association (SAMA) is one of the organisations that have already signalled intent to litigate against the NHI if it is signed into law.

Speaking at a media briefing, SAMA’s chairperson, Dr Mvuyisi Mzukwa, said that the NHI bill will impact not only health professionals, but the country as a whole.

“SAMA has, on various platforms, made its position known that, as doctors, we swore an oath of service to those who seek healthcare from us. We do not believe this Bill will achieve what it purports to do,” he said.

The notion of how physicians resist unjust situations is a relatively new one, since the patient takes priority. Unlike worker resistance, which makes use of strikes and disobedience, the resistance of physicians must work within power structure and never compromise patient care. According to a study by Wyatt et al., “physician resistance includes a refusal to comply with professional expectations of limiting their concerns to the bodily care of patients.” Their review found that physicians have often engaged in resistance when their personal and professional interests were threatened, particularly around issues of autonomy.

Keep calm and carry on?

Despite its name, NHI would not actually provide healthcare insurance – instead Section 33 introduces a financing and single-supplier mechanism reminiscent of Eskom’s doomed model.

For most in the healthcare industry, section 33 is the greatest source of uncertainty and concern. It essentially eliminates medical schemes – but those reallocated funds only account for a fraction of the NHI’s true cost. However, this provision only comes into play once NHI is fully implemented – which could take decades, or just never happen, because of its sheer cost. The real threat, Martin says, is the perception and fear around NHI.

Martin has heard of “very negative consequences,” such as on the “decision on the part of students to study medicine; on professionals to stay committed to being in South Africa, leading to significant emigration on the part of healthcare professionals.

“For me, the real concern is less about whether or not NHI will ultimately be implemented in its current form, because I don’t believe it will be simply because we can’t afford it.”

Even if it is implemented, Martin suspects that many doctors will simple opt to operate on a cash basis, and wealthy individuals would be able to pay for specialists, expensive chronic medications and extended hospital stays. Though with the average age of specialists now at around 61, up from 53 in 1996, they may be in short supply in coming years.

There is also the question over what impact the mere threat of NHI will have on those with money and the ability to invest in the economy. Martin is “very anxious about the push factor associated with the perception that we can no longer get the required healthcare services.”

At some point it becomes a question of whether high net worth individuals can afford to pay for private healthcare, like they currently do for solar panels and generators to deal with the loadshedding crisis, and if that becomes a push factor to make them emigrate, taking their wealth, skills and economic contribution with them.

Implementation is still an open question

The devil is in the details, and in this case it is the thousands of specific regulations which will have to be rolled out in order to turn NHI from a law on paper into an actual functioning system.

Martin believes that it is quite likely that the NHI will end up only being partially implemented, if at all. Many of the requirements are quite steep.

All health users will need to have an electronic health record, for example – it will be a colossal undertaking to link South Africa’s 60 million plus, heavily rural, population, not far off of the UK’s 67 million. Just to get such a system running will take years. Still, a nationwide database would be extremely valuable for healthcare.

Even so, the NHI pilot projects failed to deliver on their promise of patient-centric care; the final report on the NHI Phase 1 interventions found that success was driven by factors which included “strong political will, adequate human and financial resources for implementation, good coordination and communication and good monitoring systems in place at the time of implementation.” Factors which worked against the interventions included “inadequate planning, lack of resources, inconsistent communication a lack of coordination where necessary and insufficient mechanisms to monitor progress to ensure course correction.”

(Of the two groups of factors, government initiatives have almost always landed squarely in the latter category – Ed)

In the end, where is the money?

There also is simply no money for the NHI, which is estimated by the Freedom Foundation to cost up to R1 trillion (more, even, than the much decried public wage bill) for full implementation.

Doctors in many provinces are unemployed as their health departments struggle under budget cuts. The Western Cape for example, has a hiring freeze, creating additional workload as positions go unfilled. The strain is being felt by doctors and nurses in hospitals. Already a petition of 1200 HCPs has been sent to the WC government’s offices. Centralised support from the National Department of Health has, in fact, been going backwards, with a number of wage-related issues being dropped squarely on the, already beleaguered, Provincial departments.

The NHI is also without historical precedent, as Martin says “no country that has introduced a form of National Health Insurance has sought to exclude the ability of the private sector to, in parallel, offer an insured medical service.” Ghana trialled a form of national health insurance, only for it to quietly fade away. The system involved capitation, in which a predetermined flat payment is paid to a provider to cover a defined benefit package of services for a patient. In theory, this forces cost containment onto providers.

It is important to note that schemes on the scale of NHI have only been achieved in a mere handful of countries, a list which consists almost entirely of very wealthy countries, with strong tax bases. South Africa’s situation is very different.

“We have a tiny tax base with a massive disease burden,” Martin points out.

Big in Japan

The country that successfully implemented such an initiative the fastest was probably Japan: “it took them 40 years or so,” Martin noted.

Japan, a country noted for the longevity of its people, has a massive tax base and a tiny disease burden, Martin points out. Indeed, for decades it was the world’s second largest economy. Hardly an act that a developing country like South Africa can try and follow in a matter of years, especially when a wealthy country, like the UK, has been struggling to maintain its own NHS.

The economic consequences of attempting it would be a huge tax increase, with high net worth individuals leaving.

Meanwhile, South Africa is a healthcare tourism destination for residents of wealthy countries that have national healthcare, because it has a world-class private health care industry. That source of international income would also fade away, under NHI.

Stick and carrot: building the NHI that South Africa needs

Nevertheless, there is a way forward to Universal Health Care, through successful public-private partnerships.

SAMA’s position also reflects this. “We believe that any form of health reform must be based on a health system that is built on adequate human resources for health, access to essential drugs, medicines and vaccines, suitably utilising evidence-based policies, ethical leadership and governance, as well as being built on digital and technologically integrated systems,” Mzukwa said.

Once the dust from the election settles, then the time will come for healthcare professionals and associations to properly engage with the government on NHI, as it is faced with the reality of implementation.

In that case, Martin says, once government has “considered the cost more carefully and agreed that they need to be more receptive to offers of collaboration with the private healthcare space,” then it can “accept that medical schemes as we know and understand them today can continue to exist and provide a parallel support to those who can afford to pay for medical schemes.”

What can doctors do? Martin advises that they carry on working through their associations. The various healthcare groupings are collaborating to both benefit the government and also to litigate and challenge the legislation and regulations. But these two aims should not be separated into two separate efforts, he says.

“I think there should continue to be an effort to collaborate collectively, to come up with positive solutions for the benefit of all South Africans. I think equally they will obviously have to, in parallel, to the extent necessary, litigate – I believe litigation is entirely inevitable, but they’ll need to collaborate around that.”

BHF Annual Conference Concludes with Key NHI Insights and Roadmap for SA’s Healthcare Future

Photo by Pexels on Pixabay

After what was an insightful and collaborative meeting of the minds of healthcare professionals and experts at the 2024 BHF Annual Conference, the final day concluded by providing crucial insights into regulatory reforms shaping the future of healthcare in South Africa, as well as the legalities surrounding the controversial NHI Bill.  

Facilitated by Nomo Khumalo, BHF Director and Head of Solutions at MMI Health, part one of the discussion comprised the key regulatory responses essential for building a resilient health system capable of navigating beyond current barriers. 

Among the notable delegates participating in the discussion were Vincent Tlala, Registrar and CEO of the South African Pharmacy Council; Dr Magome Masike, Registrar of the Health Professions Council of South Africa; Dr Thandi S Mabeba, Chairperson of the Council for Medical Schemes; Dr Mark Blecher, Chief Director of Health and Social Development at the National Treasury; Yoliswa Makhasi, Director General of DPSA; and Dr Sandile Buthelezi, Director-General of the National Department of Health. 

Their expertise across the healthcare regulatory sector added invaluable insights into the state of the sector, where they explored the current policy landscape, analysed the intent of reforms versus the realities, and discussed necessary changes for policymakers to ensure healthcare sustainability. 

While all dignitaries note the need for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) to bridge the gap in access to healthcare in South Africa, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, acknowledged the complexity of implementing the NHI and the need for a phased approach. To this end, Buthelezi cited that significant work is required to establish the fund, develop regulations, and set up administrative structures.

“Apart from this, optimising healthcare delivery requires prioritising resource utilisation through proper management and spending, and addressing managerial issues to utilise available resources effectively,” suggests Buthelezi. 

“Regulatory reforms are essential for advancing healthcare, encompassing standardised data collection, quality enhancement, and informed policy evolution. Moreover, the integration of digital health strategies is paramount, leveraging technology to bolster comprehensive health information systems and elevate healthcare delivery.”

Amidst the discussions, a common thread resonated among all dignitaries: the vital importance of collaboration. Here, Buthelezi stressed the necessity for stakeholders within the healthcare sector to unite in pursuit of shared goals, emphasising the need to improve health outcomes and effectively tackle challenges through collaborative efforts.

Following this, the conversation swung to the legalities of the impending NHI Bill in a session chaired by Michelle Beneke of Michelle Beneke Attorneys Inc, and featured industry experts Neil Kirby, Director at Werksmans Attorneys, and David Geral, Partner at Bowmans.

The conversation focused on the several facets of the implementation of the Bill, including its constitutionality, lack of government response to engagement efforts, and the broader regulatory challenges facing the healthcare industry.

According to Kirby, Werksman Attorneys, as legal representatives of BHF, have closely monitored the evolution of the NHI Bill, thoroughly scrutinising its alignment with South Africa’s constitutional principles.

“Regrettably, the implementation process hasn’t yielded a bill that adequately addresses our constitutional concerns. Despite incremental progress and assurances of future adjustments, the current iteration falls short of meeting the constitutional litmus test. 

“As stakeholders directly impacted by the bill’s implications, we cannot afford to overlook constitutional shortcomings. Our obligation demands rigorous adherence to constitutional standards, ensuring that any legislation enacted upholds the rights and principles enshrined in our constitution,” he says. 

To this end, Geral adds that the Bill introduces significant changes to the healthcare system, which may potentially affect tax policy and revenue sources. 

In closing the conference, Dr Katlego Mothudi, Managing Director at BHF, emphasised the success of the conference in addressing industry challenges while promoting sustainability across the healthcare sector. 

“As we conclude this enlightening conference, we reflect on the breadth of topics covered, from disease burden to the transformative potential of digitisation and AI in healthcare. Our discussions underscored the necessity of embracing change, combating fraud, and fostering regional collaboration. 

“With a firm focus on healthcare reform, particularly the intricacies of the NHI Bill, our gathering has propelled us toward a future marked by innovation, resilience, sustainability and collective action. In the words of Edgar Tan – we can have what we need if we use what we have,” he concludes.

A Humanist with an Unblinking gaze – Professor Ntobeko Ntusi Takes the Hot-seat at the South African Medical Research Council

Professor Ntobeko Ntusi in front of a painting depicting student protests inside his office at Groote Schuur Hospital – the same office that once housed his mentor, the late Professor Bongani Mayosi. (Photo: Biénne Huisman/Spotlight)

Professor Ntobeko Ntusi may be softspoken, but he is not afraid to stand by his strongly held views. As he is set to take up the hot-seat at the country’s primary health research funder, he tells Spotlight’s Biénne Huisman about his background and his priorities for the new job.

Professor Ntobeko Ntusi’s bearing brings to mind the aphorism “speak softly and carry a big stick” cited by the 26th president of the United States Theodore Roosevelt.

Inside his office at Groote Schuur’s Old Main Building, department head of medicine at the hospital; Ntusi is soft spoken, his words a few decibels above a whisper. However his observations are thoughtful and sharp, crafted with precision. Known to call out issues around race and racism at South African universities – “inbuilt biases” even amongst young students – his level, unblinking gaze commands attention.

Born in Umthatha to academic parents, Ntusi at age 13 was named South African Junior Ballroom Dance Champion at an event in Sasolburg. Some three decades later, the cardiologist with qualifications from around the world, does not sidestep public healthcare debate in favour of keeping the peace.

Catastrophic budget cuts

Earlier this year, Ntusi publicly criticised healthcare budget cuts. R200 million was shaved off Groote Schuur’s coffers just last year, as the Western Cape Department of Health and Wellness announced an R807.8 million shortfall for the coming year. Speaking to Spotlight, Ntusi described communication on the matter by provincial government officials (with healthcare professionals) as “appalling”.

In February, Ntusi was one of a group of executives at the hospital – affiliated to the University of Cape Town (UCT) – who spearheaded a petition to national and provincial treasury, decrying “crippling austerity” and “catastrophic budget cuts”; saying how clinicians with multiplying work hours are watching patients deteriorate, as waiting lists for lifesaving elective surgery grow longer.

At a boardroom table inside his office, he says: “How we ration limited resources, this is causing real moral injury to our front-facing clinicians. I mean, we’re having to deal with complaints from patients who no longer have access to services they have grown accustomed to. This is causing a lot of distress, especially among young doctors, and medical registrars – the engine of our operation – who are increasingly anxious and taking time out for mental health reasons.”

In his present position, Ntusi’s voice has clout. He oversees thirteen divisions – from cardiology to pulmonology, and infectious diseases and HIV medicine – and corresponding research units such as the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, directed by Professor Linda-Gail Bekker.

‘Hope cannot be a strategy’

Reflecting on how Groote Schuur’s management are responding to these challenges, Ntusi says the hospital’s CEO (since February) Shaheem de Vries, while new, in time ought to bring concrete priorities to the table. “It’s important to have hope, but hope cannot be a strategy,” he says.

This insight may well inform how he approaches his own new job as CEO and President of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), taking over from Professor Glenda Gray. From July, Ntusi will give up his Groote Schuur office, putting away his clinician’s stethoscope, to take up the hot-seat at the country’s primary health research funder at its headquarters behind a facebrick facade in Parow. The SAMRC employs 718 employees and will see Ntusi answer to the National Department of Health, the SAMRC board, and the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health (you can see the latest report to the committee here).

Across medical bureaucracies, budget remains an issue. The South African government allocated R1.35 billion to the SAMRC for 2023/24. In the council’s latest annual report, diminishing funding from government is listed as a threat; while the ability to attract external funding is listed as a strength.

“A key role of the President of the SAMRC is to engage with organisations like the Wellcome Trust [in the United Kingdom] and the NIH [the National Institutes of Health in the United States] and high worth individuals to attract funding,” says Ntusi.

He points out that the SAMRC has had clean audits for several years running – a remarkable achievement for a South African parastatal. Indeed, the council’s annual performance plan for 2024/2025 states: “Despite interruptions of COVID-19, SAMRC’s exemplary performance and good governance led to the organisation achieving four consecutive clean audits… It is the organisation’s intention to continue on the same path.”

On the SAMRC’s functions, Ntusi explains: “For government, the SAMRC plays a critical role in bridging the gap between strategy and policy, and implementation. In science, it plays a critical role in providing priorities for the funding of research, and capacity building…”

In the SAMRC’s last financial year, R61.6 million was allocated to funding 171 “research capacity development” grants, including 120 to women. The annual report describes this as funding “the next generation of health researchers… with most of these awards aimed at individuals from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.”

For Ntusi, points of focus to be expanded on at the SAMRC include health issues relating to climate or planetary change, epidemic preparedness, “restoring trust in science in an age of misinformation”, digital health and artificial intelligence; and projects linking South African scholars with research entities across Africa. “In many of these countries, they don’t have the research infrastructure and budgets we have in South Africa – it is important to assist them with projects.”

To the US and back home

When he was 14, Ntusi’s family – he is one of three boys – moved to the United States where his mother pursued a PhD in social work. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he continued competitive ballroom dancing while attending Lower Merion High School, where a video on child birth showed in a biology class stirred his passions.

At liberal arts college Haverford, in Pennsylvania, he completed a BSc Honours in cellular and molecular biology, before returning “home” to South Africa in 1999, to enrol in medical school at UCT. Here his initial interest in obstetrics was disappointed – “it was loud and messy, an anti-climax” – seeing him drawn to internal medicine and cardiology instead. In following years, he would study cardiovascular medicine under mentorship of the late Professor Bongani Mayosi.

Like Mayosi, Ntusi was awarded the Oxford Nuffield Medical Scholarship, which funded his D.Phil at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. His doctoral research looked at cardiovascular magnetic resonance (CMR – noninvasive tests that produce images of a beating heart) to study inflammatory heart disease.

In 2016, Ntusi took over from Mayosi as head of Groote Schuur’s department of medicine, as Mayosi became dean of the university’s faculty of health sciences. At the time Ntusi continued treating cardiology patients, with ongoing research projects including on HIV-related heart disease.

Seven years later, against pale yellow walls (the same walls decorated by Mayosi back when it was his office) several art works and certificates attest to Ntusi’s time here. He points out one painting of student protestors made by a friend – based on the #FeesMustFall protests at the university in 2016 – “a difficult time”, he says.

In 2018, Mayosi’s suicide was partially attributed by some to pressures relating to the violent protests; while also putting a spotlight on pressure on prominent black academics at UCT, and other tertiary institutions in South Africa. An enquiry found that the “sometimes disrespectful manner” in which protest was conducted, and “instigation of students’ action by some of his colleagues”, caused Mayosi “a lot of distress”.

Displayed on a shelf, beside a stuffed doll of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a 2021 SAMRC gold trophy for “scientific achievement”, a burgundy-bound book recounts Mayosi’s legacy. Ntusi penned the introduction, where he writes: “Bongani Mayosi – as a leader, he was awesome. He is one of the most inspiring people I will ever know. He always reminded me: ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a few steps’.”

Asked about following in the footsteps of a star such as Mayosi, Ntusi replies: “I am his protégée. There were always room for me to build my own scientific investigations.”

Precarious times

As Ntusi is poised to depart from Groote Schuur, present dean of UCT health sciences Associate Professor Lionel Green-Thompson points out how the cardiologist cared for critically ill patients in COVID-19 high-care wards, particularly during the fear and uncertainty of hard lockdown.

“Sometimes we would work up to 16 hour shifts in the high-care wards; upon finally leaving I’d go outside to find anti-vaccine protestors in front of the hospital. I mean, they were just annoying,” Ntusi recalls.

“Communication around the AstraZeneca vaccine went very badly – increasing confusion and vaccine hesitancy. It is really, really important to advocate for vaccines. And this brings me back to the point of restoring people’s faith in science; redressing the public image of science, a priority I have for the SAMRC going forward.” (After procuring the AstraZeneca SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, the South African government decided early in 2021 not to use it after it showed limited efficacy against mild to moderate COVID-19 in a study.)

Foremost, Ntusi describes himself as a “humanist”. Apart from science, medicine and health equity, his interests include art, wine and dogs. Ntusi lives in Milnerton. A keen runner, he is a member of the Gugulethu Athletics Club.

Republished from Spotlight under a Creative Commons licence.

Source: Spotlight

Our Nurses, Our future: Addressing the Critical Issue of Sustainability in SA’s Healthcare Sector

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

With only 22 090 nurses to serve the country’s public health sector of more than 50 million citizens1, urgent intervention is required to bolster their numbers and protect the wellbeing of our nation. After all, without their tireless dedication, who will be there to guide you through the corridors back to health? writes Bada Pharasi, CEO of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa (IPASA)

As the global healthcare industry commemorates International Nurses Day on 12 May, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the role of nurses as the heartbeat of healthcare systems globally. Amid turmoil and triumph, nurses stand as the unsung heroes and compassionate caretakers who embody empathy, endurance and expertise. 

In South Africa, where healthcare challenges often loom large and resources are stretched thin, nurses serve as the frontline warriors, bridging the gap between suffering and healing. Yet, despite the invaluable role they play, a concerning trend looms.

Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla, recently revealed a pressing concern – the anticipation of a staggering 30% of South African nurses retiring within the next decade, and 38% retiring the decade thereafter. Compounding the issue, 5060 vacancies remain unfilled on the back of crippling budget constraints1

Representing over 90% of global healthcare workers2, nurses are indispensable in the healthcare ecosystem, and addressing this impending crisis of their reducing numbers demands comprehensive and multifaceted solutions that approach the challenge from every angle.

The nurse shortage crisis in South Africa stems from multiple factors. Firstly, the escalating healthcare needs of a growing population, compounded by the burden of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, have strained the healthcare system to breaking point.

Another factor is the restricted capacity of the private sector to train nurses comprehensively due to existing regulations. Moreover, poor working conditions, particularly in the public sector, and comparatively low salaries have led to high turnover rates, prompting nurses to explore alternative career paths or seek employment opportunities abroad3

While there are many challenges to defusing the proverbial ticking time bomb which is the declining number of qualified nurses in South Africa, increased investment across the board is critical to strengthening their ranks. 

Despite financial investment being central in realising this, addressing the problem demands a focus on improving the working conditions of nurses. Healthcare facilities must prioritise nurses’ well-being by offering competitive salaries, manageable workloads, and opportunities for career growth. By creating a supportive work environment, South Africa can retain more nurses and deter them from seeking opportunities abroad3.

Furthermore, granting private hospitals full participation in nurse training programmes is crucial. Private sector entities, such as Netcare, have the capacity to train as many as 3,500 nurses annually. However, limited accreditation from the government hampers their potential contribution to resolving the nurse shortage. Expanding private sector involvement in nurse training could substantially increase the number of trained nurses in the country3.

In addition to these measures, collaborative efforts between the government, healthcare institutions, and nursing organisations are essential. Such partnerships can identify and implement strategies to alleviate the shortage, including targeted recruitment drives, mentorship programmes, and initiatives to improve nurses’ job satisfaction and work-life balance3.

Innovative approaches to addressing the nurse shortage in South Africa extend beyond traditional solutions. Telemedicine platforms are emerging as a promising tool, allowing nurses to deliver care remotely and reach patients in underserved areas. 

Additionally, community health worker programmes are being expanded to complement nursing services and extend healthcare access to marginalised communities. Furthermore, initiatives to empower and support nurse entrepreneurs are gaining traction, encouraging the development of innovative care models and healthcare solutions. 

These diverse approaches reflect a multifaceted response to the nurse shortage crisis, leveraging technology, community engagement, and entrepreneurship to strengthen the healthcare workforce and improve access to care for all South Africans.

References:

1. Only 22 000 nurses for 50 million South Africans [Internet]. Democratic Alliance. [cited 2024 May 2]. Available from: https://www.da.org.za/2023/06/only-22-000-nurses-for-50-million-south-africans

2. Experiences of nurses and midwives in policy development in low- and middle-income countries: Qualitative systematic review. International Journal of Nursing Studies Advances. 2023 Dec 1;5:100116.

3. [Opinion] Nurse shortage crisis in South Africa [Internet]. Centre for Risk Analysis. 2023 [cited 2024 May 2]. Available from: https://cra-sa.com/media/opinion-nurse-shortage-crisis-in-south-africa

SA’s Flu Rates Anticipated to Return to Pre-COVID-19 Levels

Creative artwork featuring colourised 3D prints of influenza virus (surface glycoprotein hemagglutinin is blue and neuraminidase is orange; the viral membrane is a darker orange). Note: Not to scale. Credit: NIAID

By Elri Voigt for Spotlight

COVID-19-related factors resulted in several years of lower-than-normal rates of the flu, but experts say that is now something of the past. As this year’s flu season gets under way, Elri Voigt asks several local experts what their expectations are, which flu vaccines are available this year, and whether we should be concerned about new strains of bird flu.

While most people who get the flu experience only mild to moderate symptoms, some can get severe symptoms and even die, especially the very young and the old. As Spotlight previously reported, the influenza virus causes around 11 000 deaths per year in South Africa, with around 40 000 people hospitalised.

Dr Sibongile Walaza, a medical epidemiologist and the Head of Epidemiology at the Centre for Respiratory Disease and Meningitis at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), says that it is difficult to predict what a flu season will look like beforehand.

Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for the South African Pharmaceutical company Pharma Dynamics, agrees. “Influenza is a global disease and the spread of the virus in other parts of the world can influence the trajectory of flu seasons in different regions. For now, it’s too early to make any predictions,” she says.

It is difficult to predict the trajectory of flu seasons ahead of time, Jennings says, because of a “complex interplay” of factors, including the fact that influenza viruses are constantly mutating. This makes it difficult to accurately predict which strains of the influenza virus will dominate and how they will behave.

“The level of immunity in the population can also vary from year to year due to factors, such as vaccination rates, previous exposure to similar strains and so forth,” she adds. “However, surveillance efforts, modelling and ongoing research conducted by the NICD can help the public to prepare for the cold and flu season as best possible.”

NICD guidelines published in April 2023 already stated that since the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been some changes in the timing of flu transmission.

The transmission reduction strategies – like masking and social distancing – during the pandemic had an impact on the rates of flu transmission and the duration of the flu season between 2020 to 2022, according to Dr Jocelyn Moyes, a medical epidemiologist at the Centre for Respiratory Disease and Meningitis at the NICD.

Back to normal?

Although the numbers were still much lower, it appears that the winter flu season’s peak had started to return to levels seen pre-COVID-19 in 2022 and 2023, Walaza confirms.

“In 2023, the flu season was a little bit longer than we’d seen before [COVID-19], but it started on time. So, in terms of the timing, it was similar to what we would see before COVID-19,” she says.

When exactly the winter flu season starts each year varies, Walaza says, but on average it can start anytime from the third week of April and can circulate until August. It has been known to go on longer though.

At the time of the interview, the NICD had only detected sporadic cases of flu but had not yet seen the sustained uptick in transmission which usually signals the start of the flu season. The latest surveillance data published by the NICD indicate that 108 cases of influenza had been detected so far this year. The real number of flu cases will be much higher since most cases of flu are not diagnosed.

This year’s vaccines

Walaza explains that the flu vaccine is updated each year based on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations. This is to ensure it provides protection against evolving influenza viruses seen in global surveillance programmes.

Photo by National Cancer Institute

Flu shots used in South Africa are inactivated influenza vaccines. This means they do not contain live virus and cannot cause flu.

In the public healthcare sector, the government this year procured the trivalent vaccine which protects against three strains of the influenza virus – two influenza A strains (H1N1pdm 2009 and H3N2) and one influenza B strain (known as the B/Victoria), Walaza says. These jabs should be in public health clinics by the first week of May.

In the private healthcare sector, she says a trivalent and a quadrivalent vaccine are available. The quadrivalent shot includes protection against a second influenza B strain (B/Yamagata), but that strain has not been seen circulating in a few years. These flu shots are already available in the private healthcare sector.

The level of protection provided by the flu shot varies and generally it ranges in effectiveness against infection from about 30% to 60%, according to Walaza, but importantly it protects against severe illness.

How effective this year’s flu shot will be depends on which influenza strain or strains circulate in the country. “The hope is that if an individual gets infected by any of those strains [in the vaccine], then that individual is protected or has some level of protection [against these strains] and will have some protection against severe illness” she says.

However, she adds, it’s difficult to predict how effective this year’s flu shot will be against preventing someone from getting the flu or experiencing symptoms of the flu. This is because there is always the chance that the strains which do circulate this season are different from the ones in the vaccine or have mutated so the shot becomes less effective.

Should we worry about bird flu?

At the start of April, the WHO reported that one case of avian influenza A (H5N1), one of the avian/bird flu viruses, had been detected in a person in the United States after they had come into contact with a cow who was presumed to be infected. This was the second human case of influenza A (H5N1) detected in that country, and the first case of a person being infected with this strain after coming into contact with a non-avian species.

So far, the risk to the general public is low, according to the WHO.

“Since the virus [avian influenza A (H5N1)] has not acquired mutations that facilitate transmission among humans and based on available information the WHO assesses the public health risk to the general population posed by this virus to be low and for occupationally exposed persons, the risk of infection is considered low-to-moderate,” the WHO statement said.

There are many subtypes of influenza A viruses, Moyes tells Spotlight, and avian influenzas are similar to human influenza A viruses. And so, she explains, there is always a possibility that these viruses mutate, enabling them to infect humans, or more importantly develop the ability to transmit effectively from one person to another. This could potentially cause a pandemic.

She tells Spotlight that over the last decade sporadic cases of human avian influenza have been described related to global outbreaks in birds. These cases have all been in people who have had very close contact – usually during the culling process – with sick birds. She advises that people involved in the management of avian influenza outbreaks take precautions, such as using appropriate personal protective equipment to prevent infection.

When asked whether people in South Africa need to be concerned about a potential bird flu outbreak, Walaza says so far, no cases of bird flu infection in humans – even during the recent widespread outbreaks in birds – have been identified in the country. But it is something that the NICD is aware of and surveillance for human cases during outbreaks of bird flu in the country is being conducted.

“What’s important though to note is that even when cases have been detected [in other countries] the risk of person-to-person transmission is extremely low,” she adds.

Launch of Cough Watch SA

Walaza tells Spotlight that most of the data gathered by the NICD on influenza is from surveillance in healthcare facilities, which means that not all cases of influenza are necessarily identified.

To gather additional data, the NICD is in the process of rolling out an additional digital surveillance system to detect influenza cases, called Cough Watch SA. This online web application allows the public to report influenza symptoms.

People who sign up are asked to provide basic demographic data like age and postal code. Participants will then be sent a weekly prompt asking if they’ve had any flu symptoms. If they have had symptoms, according to Walaza, then they will be asked to provide more information. This data will then be linked to the NICD database where it will be compared to other surveillance data to see if the platform could serve as an early warning system for a flu outbreak.

Cough Watch SA will be launched in the week of 7 May, says Moyes, who urged the public to help keep an eye on flu by signing up.

Republished from Spotlight under a Creative Commons licence.

Source: Spotlight

Three Health Reforms the New Government must Prioritise for SA

Professor Bob Mash. (Photo: Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, Stellenbosch University)

By Bob Mash for Spotlight

To drum up support as South Africans head to the polls, President Cyril Ramaphosa reportedly vowed to “end the apartheid that remains in healthcare” when he hit the campaign trail. Professor Bob Mash has three health reforms on his wishlist for the incoming administration to prioritise.

South Africa is battling a quadruple burden of disease that includes HIV and tuberculosis (TB), non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and mental health problems, challenges with maternal and child health, as well as substantial trauma from interpersonal violence and road traffic accidents.

At least 80% of the population is dependent on public sector health services. However, currently, we are in a state of austerity, with substantial cuts to the health budget that undermine years of work to improve the quality and coverage of health services.

In this context, what health reforms can be recommended?

In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) told us that we need primary healthcare “now more than ever” and recommended four health reforms. Universal health coverage has become a mantra for governments and implies that everyone should have easy access to quality primary care without any significant financial barriers. They also recommended that services should move away from a focus on a few priority diseases (such as HIV) and selected health programmes (such as immunisations). Rather, services should be integrated and built around the needs of people, across the life course, and in a comprehensive approach that spans health promotion, disease prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, and palliative care.

The WHO also recommended that integrated primary care be combined with essential public health functions. In other words, we don’t just worry about the people who enter the doors of the clinic but think about the health needs of all the people living in the catchment area. Finally, they recommended transformation of the leadership in health to make it more collaborative and to dialogue on policy with multiple stakeholders.

In South Africa, our last set of reforms were known as primary healthcare re-engineering. This led to the establishment of specialist clinical teams in each district to improve maternal and child healthcare, the establishment of teams of community health workers to extend the work of the clinic into the community and a focus on better health services – like health screenings and HPV vaccinations – at primary and secondary schools.

Of course, the other major policy reform that is still on the table is the introduction of national health insurance (NHI) to improve health equity and universal health coverage.

Going forward, three areas need urgent reform and attention.

More family physicians

Firstly, notwithstanding the 2030 Human Resources for Health Strategy, South Africa does not really have a comprehensive policy on the human resources for health that are needed. Thinking on primary healthcare and district hospitals has been particularly flawed in relation to family physicians. South Africa created a new medical speciality of family medicine in 2008 which has led to the training of family physicians in all nine medical schools. These are doctors who spend four years of additional training to be specialists in family medicine and to work in primary healthcare and district hospitals.

Family physicians are known to improve the quality of primary and district hospital care. They bring expertise closer to the community, capacitate the whole clinical team, improve quality, patient safety and reduce litigation. Adding a family physician to the clinical team is a cost-effective intervention. Despite this, only one province has really gone to scale with the employment of family physicians. This is a wasted opportunity and a low-hanging fruit in terms of reform.

The South African Academy of Family Physicians has a medium-term goal of one family physician at every community health centre, every district hospital and subdistrict (without a health centre). To achieve this, we need provinces to incrementally create posts over the next 10 years and to support an increase in the number of training opportunities.

Community-orientated primary care

As previously mentioned, we have introduced community health worker (CHW) teams into primary healthcare across the country. Unfortunately, many of these teams are dysfunctional due, for example, to an absence of supportive supervision, lack of resources or poor collaboration with the local primary care facility. Often, they are regarded as just extensions of the facility-based services and expected to perform tasks allocated by the clinic nurses.

The presence of these community health worker teams is, however, a huge opportunity to introduce community-orientated primary care (COPC). This model of primary care makes the switch to a focus on the health needs of the whole population served. Introducing COPC requires commitment to nine essential principles for organising primary healthcare.

Firstly, there must be a clear delineation of the community served and CHWs given responsibility for designated households (typically 250 households per CHW).  Facility-based and community-based health care workers must operate as one multidisciplinary team and offer a comprehensive approach as described earlier. The team must make a careful analysis of the health needs in their community and also the resources available (government, non-government and private, health and social services) to address these needs.

At this local level, the team should prioritise the health needs in a participatory process with community and other stakeholders, and develop interventions tailored to their community. This process requires a commitment to community and stakeholder engagement. It also requires data to provide information on the health needs and this can come from households, facilities, and other sources. Finally, the service should be built around the needs of people and ensure that equity is improved.

The implementation of CHWs across the country needs to be reframed within a clearer policy on COPC. One province has already published its intention to make COPC the model of care and other provinces have examples of best practice.

Honing in on diabetes, hypertension, and mental health care

The final area that needs reform with more resources and attention is non-communicable diseases – particularly diabetes, hypertension, and mental healthcare. Historically, we have focused on the challenges of HIV and TB in service delivery, research, and donor funding. We have also been mindful of the need to improve maternal and child health.

Diabetes is now the leading cause of death in women in South Africa. Hypertension, heart disease and stroke are together the largest cause of deaths across all causes. Mental health, substance abuse and psychosocial problems may not cause death, but are a huge cause of morbidity and illness.

There is a danger of inequity by disease, and we need to ensure that we allocate resources commensurate to the problem of non-communicable diseases. In particular, we need to ensure that we have patient education and counselling that empowers people for lifestyle change, self-management and better mental health. Interventions are also needed in communities and the population to make healthier choices (on problem-solving, physical activity, healthy eating, tobacco smoking, alcohol and substance use) the easier choice.

Improving people’s health and healthcare is essential for sustainable development in South Africa. As the country heads to the polls, the incoming government would do well to keep this in mind. Such reforms will lead to higher quality primary healthcare and help pave the way for the proposed national health insurance.

*Mash is the Executive and Divisional Head of the Department of Family and Emergency Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Stellenbosch University.

Republished from Spotlight under a Creative Commons licence.

Source: Spotlight

Refurbished School for Paediatric Patients Bridges Critical Learning Gaps

Photo by Mary Taylor on Pexels

April 16 2024 – The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital School officially opened in its new location today, marking a key milestone in the partnership between Wits University and the academic hospital. The school caters for all learners in need of longer-term and chronic treatment for various paediatric conditions. Learners between Grades R and 12 are taught.  

“Sick children have multiple needs, and it’s our duty to ensure that they don’t miss out on any schooling. Everyone deserves the right to be educated and to contribute meaningfully to their communities as adults,” said Professor Shabir Madhi, Dean of the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences. 

Professor Madhi noted that the previous school building will be used as a campus for medical students and to grow the university’s teaching and learning footprint at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital.  

The school district representative for Johannesburg Central, Ronica Ramdath, said that often sick children forfeit their education, which can be mitigated through the correct teaching approach and through supportive facilities. “When I first came to the school some years back, I was amazed at the teachers’ dedication. I remember seeing a teacher load all their educational resources in a bag and walk to the paediatric ward to teach sick children. Today, these children all benefit from such support,” she said.  

The Wits Faculty of Health Sciences heads of schools were present, together with hospital and teaching representatives.  

Meanwhile, Professor Madhi said that the university’s wifi is available at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, underpinning Wits’ commitment to invest in a world-class academic hospital facility. “We are very proud of our footprint at the hospital and hope to continue to add value through research and clinical work,” he said. 

Source: University of the Witwatersrand – Faculty of Health Sciences

56% Stem Cell Donor Dropout Rate Puts Blood Cancer Patient Survival at Risk

Twenty-five-year-old Amahle is a proud stem cell donor – despite her fear of needles. Photo: supplied.

South Africans in need of life-saving stem cell transplants face an uphill battle due to a high rate of donor attrition. While more than 30 000 South Africans registered as stem cell donors in 2023, a 43% increase year-on-year, more than half of matched donors changed their minds when they received the call.

Palesa Mokomele, Head of Community Engagement and Communications at DKMS Africa, says that donor attrition reduces the chances of survival for many patients. “Unlike other medical donations, such as donating blood, which take place immediately, stem cell donation is a multi-stage process, meaning that those who have registered may be contacted weeks, months, or even years after they have signed up if they are a possible match for a patient. “The uncertainty around whether and when they will be called on to donate therefore impacts donor availability.”

“If notified, they will be asked to undergo confirmatory typing to determine whether they are the best match for the patient and healthy enough to donate. It is usually at this point that they decide whether to proceed with the donation or not,” shares Mokomele.

“Finding a matching stem cell donor is already like searching for a needle in a haystack, so when they choose not to follow through, it further delays the process of locating suitable donors while also increasing wait times for transplants – putting patient survival at risk,” she points out.

To prevent this and help give patients a second chance at life as fast as possible, Mokomele urges those who have registered to regularly update their donor profile to reflect their current health status and availability. “Although it can take some time between registering and receiving the call that you’re a match, it is well worth the wait.”

Twenty-five-year-old Amahle, who recently answered the call, concurs, saying, “I couldn’t believe I was going to give another person a chance to live a healthy life.”

After receiving the news, she underwent confirmatory typing and a preliminary health check. She was also given a detailed briefing call on what to expect.

As with most cases, a Peripheral Stem Cell Donation was required, which is similar to a blood donation in 90% of cases. Blood is drawn and passes through a machine (apheresis machine) that collects the stem cells after which the rest of the blood is returned back into the body. This procedure does not require anaesthetic or admission to hospital and is normally completed within four to six hours. To help Amahle generate sufficient stem cell quantities, she was injected with a hormone-like substance called G-CSF in the lead up to the donation so her body can produce more stem cells for her genetic twin. G-CSF is safe and is a significant part of the process.

Finally, the big day arrived and although she was a ball of nerves (especially given her fear of needles), she pushed through. “I was strong. I knew I needed to continue because soon I was going to save a life.”

“We applaud Amahle’s selfless act. It is moments like these that remind us of the profound impact each individual can have on another’s life. At the same time, however, we are forced to acknowledge the sobering reality that 56% of registered donors drop out. With every registration, there is hope. But hope alone is not enough. Action is what truly makes a difference. We, therefore, urge South Africans between the ages of 17 and 55 who are in good health to not only register as a stem cell donor but to act when the call for donation comes,” concludes Mokomele.

Register today at https://www.dkms-africa.org/register-now.