Tue | Aug 14, 2018

Editorial | Clarity, not a danse macabre over dead babies

Published:Tuesday | October 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM

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.




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.