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South African Children's Hospital Closed Under Apartheid To Reopen

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A large children's hospital in Durban, South Africa, is being rebuilt two decades after it closed owing to apartheid. It opened in 1931 as a facility for all races, but racial tensions in the 1980s forced its closure.

Now with Durban and the surrounding province of KwaZulu-Natal extremely hard hit by AIDS and tuberculosis, local leaders are hopeful they can begin reopening the hospital early in 2013.

If the rehabilitation project is successful, it could restore one woman's dream from almost a century ago of having a multiracial hospital in Durban by the sea.

While child mortality rates almost everywhere else in the world have been falling, this part of South Africa has seen the rate rise. At some maternity clinics in the region, 50 percent of pregnant women are testing positive for HIV.

"HIV contributes to almost 50 to 60 percent of deaths in children under the age of 5 [in South Africa]," Mohern Archary, a pediatrician at the King Edward VIII Hospital in Durban, says.

This is why Arthi Ramkissoon, a public health director at the University of the Witwatersrand, is pushing to restore the boarded-up Children's Hospital in Durban.

"Children are a neglected part of the health system," she says, and a hospital dedicated exclusively to the needs of kids could help reduce the province's rising infant mortality.

The Durban Children's Hospital was the first facility in all of Africa dedicated exclusively to kids. It was built in 1928 by then-Durban Mayor Mary Siedle, who wanted to take a child of color for medical treatment but could not find a place.

The hospital had a mandate to serve kids of all races, but it sat on a prime, beachfront lot in a white neighborhood. Amid rising tension about the hospital attracting nonwhites into a white neighborhood, the apartheid regime shut it down in the 1980s.

Now the hospital's seven buildings have fallen into deep disrepair. Windows are shattered. Roofs have collapsed, and pigeons have taken up residence in the gutters.

Ramkissoon, who works with KwaZulu-Natal Children's Hospital Trust, is still trying to raise money to restore six of the seven buildings on the 3 1/2-acre site. The first building to be rebuilt is expected to open early in 2013. It will house a center for HIV-positive teenagers.

The focus of the new children's hospital, she says, will be broader than just HIV. There will be general pediatric medicine, psychological services and inpatient wards.

Ramkissoon hopes to take full advantage of the facility's prime location next to the Indian Ocean. "My vision is for children to have physical therapy on the beach," she says. "I'd like the wheelchairs and beds to be wheeled out there. I'm going to try to have a ramp or something out to the sand."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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