Frustrated doctors, who asked to remain anonymous, told Health-e that some of the patients they had referred to regional hospitals, were told that they would have to wait up to a year to have their cervixes examined under a colposcope (huge magnifying glass) and have their cancerous lesions treated.

One patient, 34-year-old Gladys Nzimande*, was referred to RK Khan Hospital a few weeks ago with High Grade Cervical Squamous Intraepithelial lesion (HSIL), a precancerous condition.

Nzimande is HIV positive and cervical cancer is known to spread faster in women with HIV. But her Durban-based doctor was told that the next available appointment for a colposcopy was in August 2012.

‘€œShe was dismayed to hear that the wait would be so long,’€ said the doctor.

‘€œI suggested that she return to me in six months to repeat the Pap smear to assess whether the lesion had progressed.  There was nothing else to offer her, other than to say that we had to hope that her lesions were not serious.’€

RK Khan is able to do 10 colposcopies a week because of staff shortages.

Pietermaritzburg doctors reported that their patients also had to wait months for a colposcopy.

However, the KwaZulu-Natal health department has been encouraging more women to have Pap smears and this has resulted in more abnormal Pap smears and a higher demand for colposcopies.

KwaZulu-Natal health department spokesperson Chris Maxon said that ‘€œbased on the information we have been given my institutions there are generally no long waiting lists’€.

He said Edendale was disputing the claims on long waiting lists. He did admit that RK Khan patients were faced with waiting lists with bookings for colposcopies going into 2012.

Cervical cancer, mostly caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), grows relatively slowly and can be completely erradicated if identified and treated early.

Meanwhile, the colposcope at Mthatha hospital ‘€“ the main referral hospital for most district hospitals in the former Transkei – has been broken for a number of years, according to a hospital source.

Women with abnormal Pap smears are thus forced to have a cone biopsy, which is an invasive process that requires an anaesthetic and two days’€™ hospitalisation.

Every year, almost 6000 South African women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than half die from the disease. Over one in five South African women harbor HPV, which causes two thirds of invasive cervical cancers.