18 September 2012

South Africa: Dying With Dignity is a Human Right

"Many people think that you go to hospice to die, but hospice is not about death at all, it is about preserving the quality of life," said former Bafana Bafana captain, Lucas Radebe.

Radebe was speaking at the annual Hospice and Palliative Care Association (HPCA) of South Africa conference, sharing with audiences the support he received from hospice when he lost both his wife and father to cancer in 2008.

Radebe, who has since become an ambassador for the HPCA of South Africa lead one of the opening sessions. The HPCA has 189 member hospices that provide community-based medical assistance and end-of-life (palliative) care for tens of thousands of patients all over the country.

"Dignity is a central value of palliative care," said Dr Liz Gwyther, CEO of the HPCA. She stressed the importance of upholding a patient's self-worth and esteem throughout illness up until death. "It is a human right to die with dignity."

Palliative care includes primary medical treatment and is concerned with providing comfort (often in the form of pain relief) and support to patients and their families. "In palliative medicine we see patients for the person that they are, rather than the illness that they have," said Gwyther. "Palliative care affirms each person's value and we take care of their physical and psychological needs."

Although Gwyther regards palliative care as an essential part of the health system, she said that it is not afforded the same importance as general health care. She argues that a lack of access to pain medication and palliative training among healthcare workers causes a lot of unnecessary suffering and withhold many people of a dignified death.

She says that South Africa already has a culture of respect for the sick and the elderly, and used the Treatment Action Campaign's efforts around HIV/AIDS as an example of how people with illness demanded respect, value and access to treatment.

The HPCA has started a petition to call on government to make access to treatment available and affordable to all South African patients with advanced illness to ensure that patients are treated with dignity to the end of their lives.

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