The KwaZulu-Natal health department has denied that the shortage of chemotherapy drugs in the province was its fault.
Provincial health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo told journalists at a press briefing in Durban on Monday that the shortage of the drugs was a countrywide problem "that was being attended to".
"Chemotherapy has not been stopped at any KZN public hospital. All the hospitals that render chemotherapy are providing the treatment," said Dhlomo.
He said the only challenge the department had concerned the drug paclitaxel, as the contracted supplier was not able to supply it in keeping with a contract.
"There is currently no alternative supplier. Not many suppliers are involved in the manufacture of chemotherapy/cytotoxic agents. However, the national Department of Health is working on finding alternative suppliers for importing via a section 21 permit. There are many medicines used in chemotherapy and the selection of what combination is used depends on the condition and other dynamics of the patient. Upon checking stock holding, we have discovered that no fewer than 29 different chemotherapy drugs are available," said the MEC.
He said there was no crisis regarding cancer treatment in the province.
"We are, in fact, gradually turning the situation around. Thanks to our interventions, we have ensured that there are seven fully functional linear accelerators in the province; higher than any other province in the country," said Dhlomo.
He said three of these machines were at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital, two at Addington Hospital and one at Grey's Hospital.
"The seventh machine is used as part of a public-private partnership at Queen Nandi and Ngwelezana Hospital complex. Currently, there is no (extended) waiting time to see an oncologist at this complex," he said.
READ: SAHRC pleased with oncology progress made by KZN health dept
Dhlomo revealed that the department had contracted three oncologists from the Wits Health Consortium, who are based at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital, and has two oncologists at Addington Hospital.
"As a result of these measures, the waiting period to see an oncologist for the first time at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital and Addington Hospital ranges from three to four weeks to eight weeks, depending on the type of required service; while the total number of new patients that are booked is 1 036," he said.
Before these interventions, the waiting time was between five to six months, according to Dhlomo.
"There are no waiting times for children who need to see an oncologist," he said.
In July last year, a damning report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found that the department had failed its cancer patients.
The 68-page report found that "the delays in the provision of and in some cases the denial of oncology services to cancer patients some of whom are destitute and in need of health care affects them in a most fundamental way".
The report was also tabled in Parliament.
Dhlomo also announced that new oncologist Dr Thandi Lusu would join Addington Hospital.
Lusu recently passed her exams in the Free State, said Dhlomo.
"She will be joining Dr Shona Bhadree, who heads up our oncology unit, as well as our team of radiotherapists," he said.
Dhlomo said the department was fortunate as Lusu comes at a time when oncologist Dr Nokwanda Zuma has just announced her decision to take a break to pursue her academic interests.
"She has assured us though that she is not entirely lost to the department, and will be back soon," he said.
The SAHRC said in June this year that progress had been made by Dhlomo's department in implementing the commission's recommendations on the state of oncology in the province.
Acting head of the provincial health department Dr Musa Gumede denied recent media reports that mammograms were not done in provincial hospitals.
"All our hospitals that are major centres do mammograms," he said.
He said there could be backlogs in some hospitals, but it was not true that they did not do mammograms.
"Two institutions that I'm aware of that do not have mammograms that are functioning right now is Port Shepstone and Newcastle," Gumede said, adding that equipment might be under repairs in those hospitals.