Ben Maclennnan, Mail & Guardian
There is a tendency to think of it mainly in relation to politically derived violations of human rights, he said at a University of Cape Town conference on the subject.
I think that there are other cases that we are seeing in South Africa that are in accordance with that in terms of their undesirability ... that speak to the issue of human-rights violations.
Biko is the eldest son of apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died after being assaulted in police detention in 1977. The doctors who were supposed to have treated him were years later disciplined by a reluctant South African Medical and Dental Council.
He said he had seen with concern a growing number of incidents in which the South African public sector was found wanting in its ability to uphold the objectives of Article 25 of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights, which deals with health and well-being and calls for special care for children.
Two recent cases provide evidence of the regular infringement of human rights that flows from acts or omissions of health practitioners, he said.
One of them was the death in May of four infants at Cecilia Makiwane hospital at Mdantsane, after a power failure shut down their incubators and staff failed to move them to another unit where there was power.
Despite this, Minister of Health Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was reported [to have said in] defence of her office from any possible action for damages that the department will consider no compensation.
There had been a similar response from the ministry in the case of 22 babies who died last year of klebsiella infection at the Mahatma Gandhi hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.
This despite an investigation that showed klebsiella was found on the hands of 10% of the hospital staff, and in intravenous preparation, a contamination that did not occur at production level.
He said the probe provided clear evidence of the extent to which the conduct of health practitioners aided and abetted the deaths of the infants.
Yet the blame was not correctly appropriated. In both cases, practitioners and assistants failed members of the most vulnerable, the children, in life and in death.
Biko said, however, that the abuse of human rights is not an issue only in the public sector. It also exists in the private sector, and includes abuse and neglect of the elderly, and the stigmatising and ill-treatment of people with HIV/AIDS.
It also covers inadequate health-care provision, widespread mismanagement, patient neglect and abuse, lack of hygiene and lack of accountability to patients at many hospitals and health facilities.
He said the conference itself showed that human rights is an area that health practitioners are focusing on, which was a healthy development.
He said he had agreed to participate in the conference because the death of his father, who himself studied medicine and set up a pioneering clinic in King William's Town, has to be used to assist those on the periphery of the health system.
The three-day conference, which has drawn health practitioners from a variety of disciplines and several countries, aims to develop what organisers call a more comprehensive set of competencies in human rights for health professionals.
It will also seek to draw up proposals for a human-rights standard that will apply to all health professionals and that could form part of educational qualifications.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended in its 1998 report that training in human rights should be a fundamental and integral aspect of all curricula for health professionals. -- Sapa
More information on the conference is available on: http://www.hhr.uct.ac.za/conference.htm