Four months, 18 babies dead and the health minister in the dark
It appears that for four months, the Health Minister, Dr Fenton Ferguson was kept in the dark by his technocrats about a bacterial outbreak at two of the island's major hospitals that resulted in the deaths of 18 newborn babies.
But Ferguson is downplaying the fact that he was never told about the apparent crisis at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) in St Andrew and the Cornwall Regional Hospital in St James.
"It is not a matter which would have been brought necessarily to the attention of the minister," Ferguson said at a press conference this afternoon revealing that he only learned about the problem on Friday.
He went further suggesting that the problem is now getting urgent attention.
"I could not have acted without knowing," the minister told journalists at Jamaica House, adding that on learning about the problem four days ago, he immediately summoned health officials at the UHWI.
Ferguson said on Friday, a health team visited the Cornwall Regional Hospital and another was dispatched today.
In the meantime, Ferguson says four international health experts are due on the island to help battle the infections being caused by the Klebsiella and Serratia bacteria which have been causing the deaths.
He says one of them, an adviser on infection prevention and control, is scheduled to arrive in Jamaica today from the US.
The permanent secretary in the health ministry, Dr Kevin Harvey, has sought to defend the health minister saying for more than 20 years, it was never the practise to broadcast incidents of bacterial outbreaks at hospitals.
"We have had outbreaks in special care nurseries repeatedly," Harvey said.
But he said the ministry now recognises the need to satisfy customer demand for information.
"We are being up front now and proactive in terms of providing the kind of information that the public wants on issues," he said.
Earlier Ferguson reported that there was an outbreak at both hospitals in July and again in September.
Today, National Epidemiologist, Dr Karen Webster, said a number of measures have been put in place to mitigate against the problems including increased sanitary measures to ensure neonatal areas are kept clean.
She said this included the installation of foot-operated hand washing stations as part of measures to boost hygiene.
What causes the bacterial outbreak
— Microbiologist, Dr Anthony Jones, says the presence of the bacteria suggests that the hospitals affected are not clean.
About Klebsiella bacteria
— It can cause different types of healthcare-associated infections, including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis.
— The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, says the Klebsiella bacteria are normally found in the human intestines (where they do not cause disease) and also in human stool.
— It is from the same family as the Klebsiella and results in similar problems.