South Africa

Mkhize in defence of alcohol ban: ‘Every bed, every healthcare worker, every ounce of oxygen is needed’

The decision to reimpose the ban on the sale of liquor was evidence-based and meant to mitigate the strain on the health system during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alcohol-related trauma was the reason for the strain on the health system, according to the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, who briefed the media on Monday on the lockdown regulations announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

On Sunday evening, addressing the nation, Ramaphosa announced that a decision had been made to ban the sale of liquor with immediate effect. The regulations banning the sale, dispensing and transportation of alcohol was gazetted shortly after the president’s speech.

Mkhize said the decision to ban alcohol for a second time was entirely evidence-based. It was meant to create capacity in the health system for dealing with Covid-19 cases as infection rates and hospitalisations have started to surge, particularly in Gauteng.

Mkhize, who quoted a study by the director of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council, Professor Charles Parry, and others, said that during Levels 4 and 5 of the lockdown there was a 60 to 70% reduction in trauma admissions.

“Conversely, when alcohol restrictions were lifted during Level 3, facilities reported up to 60% increase in trauma emergency centre admissions and up to 200% increase in ICU trauma admissions,” Mkhize said.

The minister added that modelling done to predict the impact of an alcohol ban suggested that the prohibition could result in a 20% reduction of all trauma and 40% reduction of all alcohol-related trauma by the third week.

Mkhize further explained that liquor is a big factor in the number of people admitted to hospital for vehicle accidents, gunshot wounds and stab wounds.

He said these cases may not just take up a bed, whether in an ICU ward or a general ward, but also medical equipment, such as oxygen machines, as well as the demand for attention from healthcare workers.

“We need those right now, [for those] who are coming with Covid-19.”

Mkhize said that, during the Covid-19 surge, health facilities should be able to focus on patients that have contracted the virus.

“It would be inexcusable to actually end up with beds blocked by something that is completely preventable and excusable, like the consumption of alcohol, and then end up with the lives of people with a difficult viral infection being compromised.

He added: “At a time like this, when every bed, every healthcare worker, every ounce of oxygen is needed, it would be unforgivable to identify a clear burden on the healthcare system and do nothing about it.”

Non-Covid issues

The minister added that the health system is also still managing the burden of other diseases, including HIV, TB, cancer, hypertension and diabetes.

“We know that the most vulnerable are those who suffer from these comorbidities.

“We already have a major burden of these pathologies – close to eight million people live with HIV in this country, four million people live with diabetes and one in three South Africans suffers from hypertension.”

Mkhize said that chronic patients must keep their appointments scheduled with healthcare workers at hospitals, and he urged patients to continue taking their medication religiously.

“Patients who are attending facilities for non-Covid related issues should not fear going to a facility. We have prepared our facilities such that patients with flu-like symptoms never mix with patients who present with other clinical features.

“Patients must never delay seeking medical attention for fear of contracting Covid-19 at facilities.”

Covid-19 vaccine

Mkhize said he was aware of a Russian vaccine that had finished its first trial of tests, but said he was not aware of a country with a successful vaccine, ready for use.

Forbes reported on Monday that human trials for the vaccine had been completed and those test patients will be discharged soon.

“There are a number of vaccines that are on trial at different phases all over the world. The Russian vaccine finishing human trials did not mean it is finished… the vaccine will still undergo another phase of the trial,” Mkhize said.

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