This sorry state of affairs came to light at a recent presentation to the parliamentary portfolio committee on health by representatives of the auditor-general’s office.
The office was presenting the results of an audit of the handling of the medicines, valued at R16-billion, that the state buys each year.
The audit suggests that some patients are treated with ineffective medicines and that a fortune is being wasted on drugs that are not needed or have passed their expiry date.
Four of the 10 state medicine depots do not qualify for the Medicines Control Council licence they need to operate legally.
The four depots applied for licences but were turned down because they had inadequate storage facilities.
The auditor-general found that only the Gauteng and Western Cape provincial depots stored medicines satisfactorily.
The poor storage practices included boxes of medicine being exposed to the sun because there were no blinds on the windows. Sunlight can destroy some antibiotics and vitamins.
In one instance, a KwaZulu-Natal storeroom was found to have a temperature of 34C – 9C higher than the internationally recognised maximum of 25C for the storage of medicine.
“This makes the effectiveness of these medicines questionable,” the auditor- general’s report said.
Recordings of temperature should be made every few hours in refrigerated rooms, but a register of the temperatures recorded in a cold room in the Free State depot had not been updated between August 2010 and May 2013.
Poor security at depots led to the theft of drugs. At one depot a wheelbarrow had been used as an improvised door.
Because of a lack of stock control, provinces could not say which medicines had been stolen, or quantify the thefts.
The auditor-general found that some depots had no security cameras – or the camera systems did not work.
The registrar of the Medicines Control Council, Joey Gouws, would not say why four depots had not been licensed, but said they had breached “only” good warehousing practices and quality controls.
“The Medicines Control Council is in discussions continually with these identified state depots to try to guide them on the requirements to reach compliance status,” Gouws said.
“Periodic routine inspections are being conducted to monitor corrective action.”
DA spokesman on health Wilmot James said he was worried about the health implications of medicine depots operating illegally.
“The Medicines Control Council has strict compliance requirements for the storage and distribution of medicines – including refrigeration – and the monitoring of expiration dates. The lack of registration poses a risk.”