Clar­ity, not a danse macabre over dead ba­bies

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

WE HOPE the Op­po­si­tion is se­ri­ous about not turn­ing the re­cent deaths at the Vic­to­ria Ju­bilee ma­ter­nity hospi­tal, of at least seven new­born ba­bies from sep­sis, into a political danse macabre, even though we sup­port their call for a full ac­count­ing from the health min­is­ter, Christo­pher Tufton.

That Dr Tufton has or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mat­ter is, on the face of it, an im­por­tant first step. Yet, that ac­tion, as well as the tone of his re­sponse to Sun­day’s re­port­ing on the de­vel­op­ment by this news­pa­per, sug­gests that he was in the dark on the is­sue, which car­ries echoes of the sum­mer 2015 scan­dal over the deaths of 19 preterm ba­bies that en­gulfed the then health min­is­ter, Fen­ton Fer­gu­son. More­over, the mat­ter raises new ques­tions about in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing ar­range­ments in the health min­istry and what seems to be a con­tin­u­ing cul­ture of se­crecy among pub­lic health of­fi­cials. They only come clean, it ap­pears, when their backs are against the wall.

While the seven deaths were over three months, it ap­pears that four were in the past month, lead­ing, chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer Win­ston De La Haye con­firmed, to the clo­sure of the hospi­tal’s labour ward for “com­plete ster­il­i­sa­tion”.

Such ac­tion is un­der­stand­able pro­ce­dure. Sep­sis, af­ter all, usu­ally re­sults from vi­ral or fun­gal in­fec­tions that at­tack the very young, the old, or per­sons who are other­wise pre­dis­posed be­cause of weak im­mune sys­tems or who have wounds. Peo­ple in hospi­tal are of­ten at risk. The dis­ease causes death when, in at­tempt­ing to fight off the in­fec­tion, the im­mune sys­tem dam­ages tis­sues and or­gans.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr De La Haye, the or­gan­ism that caused the deaths at Vic­to­ria Ju­bilee wasn’t “in­sti­tu­tion-re­lated, but ex­ists in the vagi­nal tracts of the moth­ers”. None­the­less, we would have ex­pected that some­thing that caused so much con­cern among health of­fi­cials for them to close a hospi­tal ward would have been re­ported to the health min­istry, and, given last year’s ma­jor out­cry over the deaths of neonates from kleb­siella and ser­ra­tia, im­me­di­ately brought to the at­ten­tion of the min­is­ter.

SE­VERE DAM­AGE

How­ever, at the week­end, Dr Tufton was say­ing that he was “deeply sad­dened to learn of the deaths”. Any rea­son­able in­ter­pre­ta­tion of that state­ment was that he didn’t know of it be­fore this news­pa­per’s re­port, sim­i­lar to what Dr Fer­gu­son claimed re­gard­ing the kleb­siella and ser­ra­tia cases, for which he was ridiculed by the Ja­maica Labour Party, which now forms the Gov­ern­ment. More­over, a fort­night ago, of­fi­cials at Vic­to­ria Ju­bilee were stead­fastly deny­ing the deaths or any ac­tion re­lated thereto.

Dr Fer­gu­son was brought down, and caused se­vere dam­age to his gov­ern­ment, by his de­fen­sive, cagey, ham-fisted han­dling of the deaths and other prob­lems in the health sys­tem. He ought to have been frank and trans­par­ent. Dr Tufton, hope­fully, learnt that les­son. At the same time, the shadow health min­is­ter, Ho­race Dal­ley, has sug­gested that there may have been three times the re­ported cases of sep­sis deaths among ba­bies and has de­manded that Dr Tufton “come clean” about this; about ba­bies be­ing born with mi­cro­cephaly be­cause of the Zika virus; as well as other hospi­tal deaths. There is need for a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of the prob­lems in the health sec­tor but not on the ba­sis of political tit-for-tat.

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