Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo lacks effective life-saving radiotherapy for cancer patients, with the last treatment to take place in 2021.

Inoperable radiotherapy machines and the lack of a service contract are at the heart of the crisis.

The situation is exacerbated by a lack of local expertise and unreliable energy supplies.

Since radiotherapy and mammography machines broke down, Mpilo has seen a major exodus of radiographers, leaving only two remaining.

Without proper energy management, machines cannot function. A recent quote from South African engineers, totaling R1.1 million, was sent to the Department of Health and Child Care for review three weeks ago.

In 2021, Mpilo installed a $100,000 uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system for the radiotherapy unit.

However, according to the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr Narcissius Dzvanga, engineers claim that the current UPS is too powerful for the machines.

Adding to the problems, the CT scan has been out of service since October 2023 due to a software problem that requires German engineers. Local attempts to solve the problem were unsuccessful.

During a tour of the radiotherapy department by the Parliamentary Committee on Health and Child Welfare on Monday, Clinical Director Professor Solwayo Ngwenya confirmed that the last time Mpilo performed radiotherapy was in 2021.

“These machines are very expensive,” he said, highlighting their price tag of US$1.5 million. “They can’t simply be thrown away.”

He added that the ministry is aware of the situation.

“The machines stopped working three years ago, in 2021. As marketing manager, I wrote a letter to the ministry. They are aware,” he stressed.

Oncologist Dr Tatenda Chingozoh explained the machines’ sensitivity to energy fluctuations.

“The power surge damages these sensitive machines,” she said. “Even simple mistakes prevent us from performing radiotherapy, which can save a life. Patients are forced to seek treatment in private facilities.”

The lack of effective CT scan hampers treatment because it works in conjunction with radiotherapy machines.

“Without radiotherapy machines, radiotherapy cannot use CT scans because they work in conjunction with the machines. There are three CT scanners in the government system, one in Mpilo Main Hospital, one in Mpilo Hospital, and then we have a dedicated oncology hospital.

Dr Dzvanga reported that South African engineers inspected the machines and deemed them operational, with UPS being the primary problem.

“Engineers can only service the machines after we replace the UPS,” he said. “They claim that the current size is unnecessarily large, but in that case we received it. It is not our place to modify it.”

The repairs were invoiced three weeks ago, after initial doubts about the extent of the damage. Engineers went beyond the UPS, tested the machines and confirmed their functionality. The expected life of the radiotherapy machine is 10 years.

Members of the parliamentary committee wondered why the hospital was unable to switch to alternative sources of energy.

No matter the power source, it must be routed through a UPS to ensure consistent electricity, explained Director of Operations Joe Charangwa.

“Even solar requires a UPS to prevent surges,” he explained. “The UPS stabilizes and protects the main device, whether powered by ZESA or solar.”

Dr Chingozo revealed that with the machines non-functional, the remaining staff are undergoing training to maintain their skills.

“We offer limited alternative treatments due to staff shortages due to immigration,” she said. “Of the eight radiologists we had when the machines were working, only two remain.”

“We have a high staff turnover. Even our physicist is new. All the previous physicists have left the country. We are trying to maintain staff training. Currently, our physicist is attending a training course in Nigeria. Next week, there is another training in Cape Town.

Dr Chingozoh identified the lack of a service contract as a major drawback.

“These reputable companies require service plans for their devices,” she said. This was our mistake, but I think the ministry is addressing it. These are modern machines used globally. We need a proper service and maintenance plan. The government is currently concluding a service contract to cover the Mpilo and Parirenyatwa hospitals.

According to Mpilo CMO, cancer patients are forced to seek treatment at Oncocare’s private facility in Newlands, with Parirenyatwa Hospital facing similar challenges. Site

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