In 1986, paint was peeling off the walls of the pediatric wards at the King Edward VIII Hospital in Durban, the place of last resort for black people in South Africa’s Natal province. There, children died of measles, tetanus, and other vaccine-preventable diseases, and newborns were crammed four to an incubator in the nursery. The conditions propelled a career change for journalist Meredith Wadman, this project's author who was a medical student in South Africa nearly four decades ago.
Today, the 850-bed King Edward hospital still has buildings that date to 1936. But it remains a major care center for black residents in the renamed province of KwaZulu-Natal. And while the end of apartheid ushered in major changes that improved children’s lives, black children's health today remains precarious: A black five-year-old can expect to die a decade sooner than a five-year-old white peer.
This article takes readers through the author’s memories and journals from 1986 — and looks hard at conditions today, from a village in rural KwaZulu-Natal to a charity clinic in a Durban slum. It dives deeply into the strained state of black children's health in South Africa 30 years after apartheid's demise. The causes include diarrhea, pneumonia, and deaths at or around the time of birth. For teenage girls, the risk of contracting HIV runs high.
And while many children are chronically malnourished, leading to stunted growth, acute malnutrition is re-appearing in pediatric wards — a legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted school feeding programs and cost parents their jobs.