KINGSTON –– Minister of Health Dr Fenton Ferguson confirmed in Parliament yesterday that the number of baby deaths related to the current bacterial infection crisis had risen to 19.
In a statement to the House of Representatives, Ferguson said that 483 babies had been admitted to hospitals’ special care nurseries since the crisis started in June.
He said that 45 or 9.3 per cent had had their illnesses attributed to sepsis cases and total deaths had risen to 19, which is 42.2 per cent of the total.
He said that most of the babies who died as a result of klebsiella and serratia bacterial infections were less than seven months old, and weighed less than two pounds.
The Ministry of Health last week called on health authorities outside of Jamaica for help in the wake of the outbreak of bacterial infections at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) in Kingston and the Cornwall Regional Hospital (CRH) in Montego Bay.
Yesterday, dozens of Ferguson’s supporters from his St Thomas Eastern constituency and some Corporate Area constituencies, dressed in his campaign T-shirt, flooded the street at the southern end of Gordon House to give him support as he responded to intensive questioning from several opposition MPs.
Opposition Leader Andrew Holness maintained that the health budget cut in 2012/2013 had contributed to a breakdown in the ministry’s sanitation standards and had led to the deaths.
Questions were also asked by Dr Horace Chang, himself a medical doctor; Audley Shaw, the opposition spokesman on finance and planning; Rudyard Spencer, who served as health minister in the former Jamaica Labour Party Government; and Portland Western MP Daryl Vaz, who both asked questions and tabled several others.
In response, Ferguson, a dentist, admitted that there are challenges in the health sector.
“There are misery index issues that still impact the sector, and I admit to that. There are some challenges in the sector, and I admit to that. But let us not begin to beat the system down for our people to lose confidence in a system that is better than many other beyond the Caribbean,” the minister insisted.
Ferguson denied allegations that the ministry was aware of the outbreak at the UHWI from June. He said that the chief medical officer in his ministry, Dr Marion Bullock Ducasse, was only made aware
of the development on September 7, and he was not informed until October 16 when he queried reports about the deaths.
“There is a process, and once it gets to a certain stage there is a protocol that elevates the matter to the Ministry of Health, and that was not done,” Ferguson admitted in response to questions from Chang.
Chang asked the minister to assure the House that the required protocol had now been put in place to control the spread of the disease in both hospitals, and that the reporting system had been upgraded.
Ferguson said that what went wrong was that when the outbreak was reported to the chief medical officer, it was not done as a formal report elevating the matter to the ministry level.
“What came to the chief medical officer was a note with correspondence from two officers of the ministry expressing their views. The fact is that it spoke to the earlier outbreak in June.
“It did not speak to the current outbreak,” he said.
He also said that the ministry had been disclosing information obtained from its investigation into the incident. But Chang said that the system had clearly failed and required ministerial intervention.
“You are the minister, and as the minister you should have taken action already,” Chang suggested.
“The fact that there was a report on the seventh of September, and the entire system had failed and caused the deaths of babies, you should have removed people already, if you are not going to take responsibility yourself.”
He added that what came across publicly from the ministry’s intervention was “a kind of casual, ‘well, this happens anyway’ response, and it sounded to be very insensitive to the individuals involved”.