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Probe: Nearly 100 psychiatric patients die of neglect in South Africa

At least 94 mentally ill patients died due to negligence in South Africa last year after they were moved to unlicensed health facilities, according to a probe. Witnesses compared the facilities to "concentration camps."

Südafrika Skyline Johannesburg Gauteng (picture alliance/Bildagentur-online/Schickert)

Johannesburg (above) and Pretoria are both located in Gauteng province, South Africa's commercial hub

The health ombudsman said Wednesday patients were transferred from hospitals to 27 "poorly prepared," overcrowded facilities last year as part of a cost-cutting measure by the Health Department in the northern province of Gauteng.

"The decision was unwise and flawed, with inadequate planning and a chaotic and rushed or hurried implementation process," the ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, said in his report.

Around 1,300 patients were part of the move from the licensed Life Esidimeni hospital to various charity institutions that were all operating under invalid licenses.

"It's remarkable that only one person has died from a mental health-related illness," Makgoba told journalists. The other 93 "have died from other things like dehydration, diarrhea, epilepsy, heart attacks, all other things except mental illness."

He added that the death toll was likely to rise because more people were coming forward with information. 

Severe neglect

The report said the health centers were "mysteriously and poorly selected" and were "unable to distinguish between the highly specialized non-stop professional care requirements... and a business opportunity."

Witnesses cited by the report compared the conditions to "concentration camps." 

Relatives weren't informed about where the patients had been taken, or even if they had died, the ombudsman said. In some cases, the centers also failed to provide seriously ill individuals with enough food and water, leaving them malnourished, dehydrated and dangerously underweight.

Public outrage

The release of the report sparked a huge outcry on Wednesday, with South Africans taking to social media to demand an overhaul of the country's health system.

The opposition Democratic Alliance criticized the provincial health department and called for criminal charges to be brought against those responsible.

As the scandal broke, provincial health minister Qedani Mahlangu announced her resignation.

nm/sms (Reuters, AFP)