BULAWAYO – Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo – one of only two medical facilities in the country that treat cancer patients – is turning away patients in need of life-saving radiation therapy because it has no physicists to operate the machines, ZimLive has learnt.
Patients from south-western Zimbabwe, who are in Mpilo’s catchment, are being referred to Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals in Harare – 450km away.
The hospital has made a desperate plea to the health ministry to second physicists to the institution so that treatment can resume.
“We’re waiting for a physicist to be seconded from Harare,” the hospital’s acting CEO Professor Solwayo Ngwenya said on Tuesday.
“Our physicists resigned and left for greener pastures in the United Kingdom. Without a physicist, we’re not allowed to run the machines by regulatory authorities.”
In the absence of radiation treatment, Prof Ngwenya said patients were being treated through chemotherapy, which might not be ideal for every patient.
Radiation therapy uses beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells. The therapy is usually conducted using a linear accelerator — a machine that directs high-energy beams of radiation into a patient’s body.
Mpilo Hospital has two linear accelerators and a third machine for cervical cancer – and a waiting list of over 100 patients waiting to use the machines, according to Prof Ngwenya.
Compounding the crisis for Mpilo is that the machines regularly break down – and Zimbabwe has no engineers presently with the competence to fix them. When the machines broke down in August last year, they were not repaired until last month.
Said Prof Ngwenya: “When they break down, we have to fly in engineers from South Africa. They’re very sensitive machines. Whenever there are power outages and such other disturbances, the risk of breakdown is heightened. What we really need is serious investment in our cancer treatment regime.
“We’re grateful to the government for helping with the foreign currency to fix the machines. We also feel the pain and risk that patients feel, and we’re pressing very hard for the ministry to send the required physicist. Hopefully very soon one will be seconded, and treatment can resume.”
Prof Ngwenya said ideally, they needed between six and 10 physicists – but he admits they are like “gold dust” in Zimbabwe as many leave for better paying jobs abroad.
“The reason we need at least six is because they are required by regulations to take lengthy time off to reduce exposure to the radiation which can compromise their health. In fact everyone in the radiotherapy department must take time off, something like 72 days per year – and this puts a strain on our human resources,” Prof Ngwenya said.