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Former health minister says administration now caught in own trap on dead babies issue

Published:Sunday | October 23, 2016 | 12:00 AMErica Virtue
Fenton Ferguson

Dr Fenton Ferguson - who had a tumultuous tenure as health minister under the previous administration - is now contending that current government officials who nailed him to the political cross while they were in opposition are now suffering silently from "foot in mouth disease".

The then embattled minister was blamed for a number of ills befalling Jamaica during his term in office, among them the chikungunya (chikV) outbreak that brought the country to its knees; the foot and mouth disease that hit several schools; and the deaths of 19 premature babies at two of the island's major hospitals arising from an outbreak of the lethal klebsiella and serratia bacteria.

Ferguson also came under immense fire for his refusal to release the long-awaited and much-anticipated Audit Report of the four Regional Health Authorities, which after loud public outcry was finally released. He was accused of not being transparent and lack of communication from his ministry.


Relieved of duties


With the pressure mounting from several quarters for his head on a platter, he was eventually relieved of his health minister duties and reassigned to another ministry. In fact, the then opposition Jamaica Labour Party made Ferguson a central point of its campaign for the 2016 general election. And his utterance that "they were not babies in the real sense", in reference to the dead premature babies, only added fuel to the fire.

In an interview with The Sunday Gleaner last week following the release of the Public Defender's report on last year's deaths of the premature babies, which cleared medical and hospitals officials of any wrongdoing, Ferguson said the silence of the then vociferous crucifying crew was now deafening.

"The criticisms came from right, left and centre. They came for my head and they got it. Among the critics were the now prime minister, the attorney general, who was spokesperson on health, and my opponent Delano Seiveright. In fact, they all took it to the political platform. And I firmly maintain that it could not be in the best interest of me, as minister, and hospital personnel to wilfully cause the deaths of babies," said the former health minister.

He said some of those now knocking the Public Defender's report would be singing a different tune if it had held anyone culpable.

"You are damned if you do and damned if you don't, but you cannot have your cake and eat it. If the report blamed anyone, people would have said their cases are strengthened. But because it says otherwise, it's now a problem," said Ferguson.


Public Defender's report


In her report, Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry said there was no evidence that the babies were infected with serratia and klebsiella because of medical negligence on the part of hospital employees. The report also disputed media reports that there was an outbreak.

The report concluded that the eight premature babies who died in separate infectious incidents at the University Hospital of the West Indies in June last year were the "unfortunate victims of an under-resourced medical facility".

"There is no evidence of medical negligence on the part of the hospital staff which led to the infection of the preterm babies with serratia marcescens and klebsiella. Neither was there any evidence of medical negligence on the part of hospital staff in the treatment, care and management of the preterm babies who passed," the report said.

It added, "The premature babies, who were particularly susceptible to infections, became the unfortunate victims of an under-resourced medical facility."

The report, which was penned after an investigation that included interviews with top hospital administrators at the time, said it "appears from the evidence that the concept of an outbreak was purely a media creation".

"There was no outbreak at the Neonatal Unit between June and October 2015. That which transpired was not unusual and the infectious happenings were part of the hazards of low birth weight, undeveloped organs and immune systems and the hospital environment," the report said, noting that seven preterm babies died from the infections in separate incidents in October 2011 and December 2013.

At least two attorneys representing parents of the dead premature babies have said the report had the potential of throwing cold water on the cases they were pursuing.

Commenting on the recent deaths of babies at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital, Ferguson said the report on that matter has left more questions than answers, and urged a more in-depth study of the findings that were presented at a press conference last week.

Acknowledging that current Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton got a passing grade for communication, he pointed out that "communication and photo opportunity without substance are meaningless".

Ferguson said issues such as health, education, and national security, in particular crime, should never be politicised, and in spite of the "foot in mouth disease now afflicting the Government", he hoped a lesson was learnt.

"The current opposition party is a responsible one, and hence politicising the issues will not happen. But we all remember how much politics was played during my time as minister. And I have to ask, where are they all now?" Ferguson declared.