Concern About SANDF Medical Support in DRC Misplaced: Ministry

Jun 20, 2003 03:43 PM EDT

The Ministry of Defence said on Thursday concerns about the quality of medical support for SA National Defence Force troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo were misplaced.

Spokesman Sam Mkhwanazi said reports that the SA Military Health Service and the United Nations were providing the 1,400 South Africans there a shambolic service lacked context.

A newspaper said on Thursday the problems encountered by their reporter during a visit to the South African contingent of Monuc, the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, ranged from a lack of foot powder and oxygen to cases of HIV/Aids.

In the reports blockages in the UN's logistics system were cited as the reason for the delay in the delivery of the equipment to Kindu, the South African base.

But the reports said critics believed the problem lay in Pretoria where the deployment of the medics had been poorly planned and their equipment and supplies haphazardly packed.

"Other serious problems the ministry would not comment on are how it could have happened that the first medical casualty was a soldier with terminal HIV/Aids and tuberculosis," the report said.

According to UN guidelines, the entire South African contingent should have been tested for HIV and other serious illnesses before departure. Those testing positive should not have been deployed.

The second casualty was a soldier with a long history of mental problems who reportedly said he had been forced to go to the DRC.

A third had been suffering from ulcers "for years" and had to be sent home with internal bleeding.

As far as equipment was concerned, the team had to cope without oxygen although they had been supplied with a ventilator, which required an oxygen cylinder to work.

Although there was nearly no foot powder or mosquito repellent, there was plenty of medication for post-menopausal women, post-natal pharmaceuticals and antidote for insecticides.

The team also has four wheelchairs, but no beds, tables or chairs.

Patients were being examined while sitting on steel trunks.

Dozens of paediatric neck supports had been supplied, but none for adults, and 10,000 bedpan covers were delivered -- but no bedpans.

Speaking to Sapa, Mkhwanazi said it was vital for the public to note that the troops in the DRC were seconded to the UN and that the UN -- not the SANDF -- was responsible for their well-being and re-supply.

This meant that far from being at the end of a long and tenuous supply line from Pretoria, the SANDF contingent could readily draw on Monuc supply depots in the DRC itself.

Peacekeeping was not an SANDF core function. When tasked to perform it, the military did so in support of other departments, much as it did when supporting the police in the fight against crime.

Without blaming the UN, this made it difficult for the ministry to answer all questions raised regarding such deployments.

Turning to the issues raised in the reports, Mkhwanazi said a shipment of South African gear had been delayed at sea and this had caused a hiccup in the delivery of some equipment.

"But it is important to note that once there the equipment becomes part of a common UN pool," he said.

"The UN medical team at Kindu is multinational and the South African detachment has access to pool equipment provided by other contingents in the meantime. So it's not like they are unable to work," he added.

There was also a complete Chinese field hospital in the city for UN troops, including the South Africans.

Mkhwanazi said no South Africans had been evacuated from Kindu with HIV or tuberculosis.

He said in terms of a standing Memorandum of Understanding, 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria was Monuc's "Level 4 medical facility".

"The patients evacuated from the DRC to 1 Mil were not from the SANDF. It is unfortunate that this was simply assumed."

Mkhwanazi further denied that any SANDF personnel had been forced against their will to go to Kindu. Current policy required soldiers to volunteer for international duty.

The SANDF also had a strict policy against deploying HIV-positive personnel on UN missions because of the negative health consequences a deployment under adverse conditions could hold for them.

By sarah park
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