Military doctors are treating South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela for a recurring lung infection, an ailment the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader remains susceptible to because of his age and his 27 years in prison.
Government officials acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that the illness forced soldiers to admit Mandela to a military hospital on Saturday, though they said the politician was responding to treatment.
Mandela fought off a similar infection in 2011 and once contracted tuberculosis while imprisoned. Medical experts say respiratory illnesses like pneumonia striking a man his age are a serious matter that require care and monitoring.
“They call pneumonia ‘the old man’s friend’ because it is the thing that ultimately carries many people off,” said Dr. Peter Openshaw, the director of the Center for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College’s National Heart and Lung Institute in London. “What I guess they’ll be doing is trying to find out exactly which type of infection it is and then to give it the most appropriate treatment. With modern antibiotics and investigation, then there’s no reason a chest infection by itself should be untreatable.”
The announcement ended speculation about what was troubling the ailing Mandela. His ongoing hospitalization has caused growing concern in South Africa, a nation of 50 million people that largely reveres Mandela for being the nation’s first democratically elected president who sought to bring the country together after centuries of racial division.
The tests Mandela underwent at 1 Military Hospital near South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, detected the lung infection, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement.
“Madiba is receiving appropriate treatment and he is responding to the treatment,” Maharaj said, referring to Mandela by his clan name as many do in South Africa in a sign of affection.
In January 2011, Mandela was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital for what officials initially described as tests but what turned out to be an acute respiratory infection. The chaos that followed Mandela’s stay at that public hospital, with journalists and the curious surrounding it and entering wards, saw the South African military take charge of his care and the government control the information about his health. In recent days many in the press and public have complained about the lack of concrete details that the government has released about Mandela’s condition.
Mandela has a history with lung problems. He fell ill with tuberculosis in 1988 toward the tail-end of his prison years, after he had been moved from the notorious Robben Island and to another jail to ease the apartheid government’s efforts to negotiate with him about a possible release. At first, doctors were uncertain why Mandela had a persistent cough that ultimately caused him to collapse during a meeting with his lawyer. After being taken to a Cape Town hospital, a doctor told him he had water in his lungs.
Mandela initially refused to believe the doctor, he wrote in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.”
“With a hint of annoyance, (the doctor) said, ‘Mandela, take a look at your chest,'” Mandela recounted. “He pointed out that one side of my chest was actually larger than the other.”
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