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Feb 10
Supporting the Department of Health’s outreach to former mineworkers eligible for occupational health injury compensation

By: Lunga Memela (HST Communications Engagement Lead)

Many South African households rely heavily on wages earned by hard-working employees in the country's mining industry. Reliance on such income is gravely compromised when the breadwinners are no longer able to put food on the table due to unforeseen circumstances such as closure of mines or injury at work.

The Health Systems Trust (HST) again joined forces with fellow District Support Partners (DSPs) to the Department of Health in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN DoH), this time in support of  a collaborative initiative by the DoH, Department of Employment and Labour and Department of Mineral Resources and Energy to track, trace and pay the former mine workers or their dependants who qualify for unclaimed social protection benefits from 1965 to 2019 in the form of compensation for illnesses, class action settlement funds and pension or provident funds. Many former mineworkers contracted tuberculosis (TB) or silicosis – an incurable lung disease caused by inhalation of dust that contains free crystalline silica.

Understanding the airborne nature of TB and silicosis in the global mining industry

It is common knowledge that TB is an airborne disease, meaning that it is spread through the air when people with lung TB cough, sneeze or spit. A person needs to inhale only a few germs to become infected. Also airborne, "Silica dust is made up of small particles that become airborne during work activities with materials that contain crystalline silica," explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC warns that the respiratory systems of employees in a variety of industries including construction, mining, oil and gas extraction, stone countertop fabrication, foundries and other manufacturing settings, are exposed to crystalline silica.

The International Labour Organization says that: "Despite all efforts to prevent it, silicosis still afflicts tens of millions of workers in hazardous occupations and kills thousands of people every year, everywhere in the world. With its potential to cause progressive and permanent physical disability, silicosis continues to be one of the most important occupational health illnesses in the world."

KZN's compensation to former mineworkers

Towards the end of January 2023, the DoH announced that it would be embarking on a journey to compensate ex-mineworkers suffering from lung disease, starting in the deep rural northern parts of KZN, covering Vryheid, Ulundi, Nongoma and Pongola, where HST teams were stationed in the organisation's mobile units to support the initiative.

From 23 January to the first week of February, KZN claimants flocked to these sites, where they were offered free health screening, verified for their mining employment history, had medical examinations, and learnt about the payment of benefits to eligible members.

"We were proud to also play our part in offering critical health services," said HST's Area Co-ordinator for Pongola, Phindile Sangweni (pictured above). "Screening for as many ailments as possible is essential. Sometimes one comes across a patient who says their TB medication is not working, only to find that they have other co-infections, especially HIV," she said.

"We face a number of challenges in Pongola," Sangweni explained. "The sub-district is situated only 10 kilometres from the Eswatini border, so the local clinics and Outreach Teams see a lot of truck-drivers and migrant labourers, who are among hard-to-reach key populations. We try our best to link patients to care and to keep them in care, but they are always on the move because of work and other factors. The HST teams implement outreach sessions, delivering health services to the neighbouring farms so that we keep to our mandate for continuity of care. The local Gateway, Belgrade, Mkhwakhweni, Pongola and Ncotshane Clinics also service cross-border patients from Eswatini. It is a lot of work."

Also proud to be part of HST's Outreach Team during the initiative were Driver Mobiliser Siyanda Kunene and Nurse Clinician Slindile Khathi. They enjoyed interacting with more senior citizens in Pongola, a notable age difference from what Kunene is used to when servicing the KwaNongoma area.

"Our relationship with HST remains right on track," said iTshelejuba Hospital Chief Executive Officer, Mrs Thembisile Vilakazi (pictured above). She said that it had been a busy week for Pongola, with an impressive turnout of local citizens in response to the mobilisation that took place on radio and various other channels. "In addition to the purpose of the day, it was also good to see so many men attending, so that we could promote cancer screening for them," said Vilakazi. In an article posted by KZN DoH on 31 January 2023, KZN Health MEC Ms Nomagugu Simelane noted that the beginning of the year is a good time for men who are older than 50 to receive prostate cancer screening and testing.

The HST teams participating in the former mineworker initiative are employed under the organisation's SA SURE PRO project that strengthens local capacity to provide sustainable HIV and TB care and treatment services in South Africa's public health system. Funded by the CDC through the U.S President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the project supports the provincial, district and health facility DoH staff and communities in four PEPFAR focus districts in KZN, namely eThekwini, uMgungundlovu, uThukela and Zululand. 



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