Data Breach News

South Africa’s NHLS Shuts Down Systems After Cyberattack

The NHLS was already facing a significant backlog in toxicology tests after the outbreak of the Mpox viral disease.

by Alan J June 25th, 2024

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The National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), South Africa’s primary diagnostic pathology service for public healthcare facilities, has fallen victim to a cyber attack. The incident, which occurred over the weekend, has forced the organization to shut down its IT systems, including emails, website, and patient lab test results storage and retrieval systems.

NHLS CEO Prof Koleka Mlisana confirmed the breach in a memo to staff, describing it as a “suspected incident” that compromised the security of their IT infrastructure.

The attack comes amidst an Mpox outbreak that has already overwhelmed the country’s healthcare services. However, the extent of the cyberattack has yet to be determined, even as restoration efforts are underway.

Impact on South Africa’s National Health Laboratory Service

NHLS Chief Executive Officer Prof Koleka Mlisana informed staff of the incident in a memo, stating that the breach had caused damage and that the organization was treating the matter with extreme urgency and concern.

Milsana stated, “I regret to inform you that our IT systems are unavailable due to a suspected incident that occurred over the weekend.”

Mlisana assured staff that the organization’s Incident Response Team was working around the clock to determine the scope of the intrusion and deploy the necessary safeguards to secure systems and data. The NHLS has implemented its “Downtime Protocol” to minimize disruption to services, prioritizing patients’ samples and processing, with results communicated directly to clinicians whenever urgent.

The cyber attack comes at a critical time for South Africa’s healthcare system. The country is currently grappling with a Mpox outbreak, and the NHLS was already facing a significant backlog in toxicology tests as of March. The shutdown of IT systems is likely to exacerbate these challenges.

Mzi Gcukumana, the NHLS Communication, Marketing, and PR officer, disclosed: “Preliminary investigation suggests that our Enterprise Resource Planning (Oracle) environment, Laboratory Information System (LIS) (TrakCare) database, and CDW are not affected. Therefore, no patient data has been lost or compromised. All patient data is safe.”

Response and Recovery Efforts

“Please rest assured that our priority focus is on data security. We are determined to solve this issue swiftly and transparently,” Milsana stated to patients. In response to the breach, the NHLS has deployed its Incident Response Team to assess the scope of the intrusion and implement necessary safeguards. Mlisana assured staff that the team is working around the clock to secure systems and data.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank you in advance as we all put in our efforts to ensure that disruption to our services is minimised,” Milsana added.

The NHLS had determined that that certain sections of its systems, including its backup server were deleted, requiring the rebuilding of affected systems. Gcukumana stated, “All users will be aware that the NHLS networked laboratory system is heavily reliant on these information technology systems that have been disrupted.”

He added, “Unfortunately, this will take time, and investigations thus far have not advanced enough for us to give a timeframe for the restoration of our systems and full service. All stakeholders and the public will be informed as soon as more information becomes available.”

The National Department of Health, which oversees the NHLS, has been informed of the incident. A spokesperson for the department called for patience as efforts to resolve the issue continue.

As the investigation unfolds, the NHLS has promised regular updates on the compromise and ongoing response activities. The organization emphasizes its commitment to data security and swift, transparent resolution of the issue.

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