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Dengue crisis at ‘Busta’ - Deaths from mosquito-borne disease spike at children’s hospital

Published:Tuesday | November 26, 2019 | 12:44 AMCorey Robinson/Staff Reporter
The Bustamante Hospital for Children.
The Bustamante Hospital for Children.

Dengue mortality at the Bustamante Hospital for Children has jumped by more than 30 per cent this month, with five deaths being recorded compared to 15 over the previous 22 months.

There were 20 dengue deaths confirmed, suspected or under investigation at Bustamante between January 1, 2018 and November 7 this year, the children’s hospital racking up the highest number of fatalities among public health facilities. St James’ Cornwall Regional Hospital is second with 15 deaths; followed by Mandeville Regional, with 11, and St Ann’s Bay Hospital, 10. Victoria Jubilee, a maternity hospital, is the only secondary or tertiary public medical facility that has not recorded a single dengue death. The private Andrews Memorial has had one case and the quasi-public University Hospital of the West Indies, one.

A number of other notified deaths have been ruled out as not caused by dengue.

Dr Michelle-Ann Richards Dawson, senior medical officer (SMO) at Bustamante – the only paediatric hospital in Jamaica – emphasised that many cases were referred there from other medical institutions, and that the crisis had islandwide scope.

But while the hospital is buckling under pressure from an influx of children suffering from dengue-related illnesses, the senior administrator warned critics, including the Opposition, not to exaggerate the impact and create public panic.

She contradicted allegations by Dr Morais Guy, opposition spokesperson on health, that more than a dozen children have died from dengue in November.

“I got some information suggesting that at Bustamante Hospital, over the last two weeks, 14 children have died from dengue,” said Guy, as he chided the Government’s handling of the dengue outbreak during a recent Gleaner Editors’ Forum at the newspaper’s North Street headquarters.

But Richards Dawson said those numbers were incorrect.

“I have a daily account and from where I stand, since the beginning of November, we have had only five deaths,” said the SMO.

“I am using this opportunity to caution those who are spreading false information, putting the public into panic, she said, disclosing that increased flu cases have put a strain on the hospital’s beds, staff, and its Accident and Emergency unit.

“And remember, we still have motor vehicle accidents, we still have children falling out of trees. We still have a lot of things happening. Dengue is just one of the many emergencies,” she said, urging persons to visit their health centres instead of the hospital first. She also advised parents to be careful of the medications they administer to children ailing from dengue.

Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton told Parliament two weeks ago that there were 10,559 notifications of dengue cases in Jamaica up to November 7. Of that number, 6,114 have been classified as suspected, presumed or confirmed. There have been 44 deaths.

Meanwhile, medical professionals who attended last week’s forum bemoaned the strain on staff as dozens of parents spend long nights awaiting treatment for their children, at times becoming agitated and disrespectful to hospital staff.

“My colleagues are saying this is the worst they have seen dengue in both the number of persons coming in, and also persons are coming in sicker than they have ever been,” bemoaned Carmen Johnson, president of the Nurses Association of Jamaica (NAJ).

“Normally, you would see persons come in complaining of fever, having flu-like symptoms, a rash, maybe a little vomiting, and you are able to work along with them towards better health,” said Johnson.

“But what we are seeing is that most of the individuals coming in now ... by the time they start complaining of having a fever, it goes up to 102⁰C,103⁰C.

“So it doesn’t climb like the usual dengue that we are used to,” she explained, adding that children and older adults were worst affected.

Johnson said some dengue patients are turning up at the hospitals extremely weak, and that by the time they start to explain their symptoms to health workers, they collapse.

“For those who are stronger than our younger ones and the older ones, they tend to bounce back within a quicker period,” she said.

“But for some of those, especially children, they tend to swing. Today, they will look a little better, but by the time they go home, they come back in tomorrow,” said the NAJ president, citing this as the origin of many disputes between worried parents and nurses at the hospital daily.

Kari Douglas, People’s National Party councillor for the Trafalgar division, apologised publicly after a confrontation between her and staff at Bustamante forced a shutdown of the Accident and Emergency Unit for two hours on November 10.

Douglas was reportedly dissatisfied with the attention that was being rendered to her sick child.

Patient-staff altercations are commonplace, said Johnson, underscoring that the increased demand, coupled with shoddy infrastructure and the constant resignation of nurses, has put those who remain under intense pressure.

More than 500 nurses resigned from the healthcare system last year and an additional 460 quit up to October this year. Less than 300 nurses have been replaced.