This week’s featured development as Newsmaker of the Week just ended is the admission by Health and Wellness Minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, that 12 babies died from a bacterial infection at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital (VJH) since July of this year and the matter was not made public until last week.
In what some are describing as a stinging dose of karma, it seems that the Andrew Holness Administration is facing its own dead babies’ scandal after having lashed out at the then People’s National Party (PNP) Administration in October 2015 over the deaths of 18 pre-term babies in the public health system.
Those babies died at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) and Cornwall Regional Hospital (CRH) following an infectious outbreak caused by the bacteria klebsiella and serratia.
The calls then, especially from the then Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), for then Health Minister, Dr Fenton Ferguson’s head, which he initially dismissed as being politically motivated, mounted after he suggested that the pre-terms were not babies in the real sense.
Ferguson was eventually relieved of his portfolio and reassigned to the Ministry of Labour.
Fast forward seven years later and a new so-called dead babies’ scandal has emerged, with the now Opposition PNP calling for Tufton to go, as well as for a comprehensive probe into the recent deaths of the babies.
On Wednesday afternoon, it was first reported on Nationwide Radio that “dozens” of babies had died at VJH following an outbreak of resistant bacteria during the summer.
It was said that the Health and Wellness Ministry had to turn to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) for help. However, while that was happening and babies were reportedly dying, the public was kept in the dark.
It was also revealed that Prime Minister Andrew Holness was only reportedly informed of the deaths of the new-borns after the media house query on the matter.
Tufton, appearing on the radio station on Wednesday afternoon, categorically denied the reporting of “dozens” of babies dying due to bacterial infection, placing the figure instead at 12.
Dr Fenton Ferguson (foreground)
He reasoned that a shortage of nurses could have led to the outbreak.
“The insinuation that somehow dozens of babies have died is not the information that I have, but every death is regrettable, and so it is not an excuse.
“We have the problem and we have some challenges in dealing with it, but we are dealing with it,” Tufton said.
He went on to disclose that 16 babies were infected after the bacterial outbreak at the island’s largest maternity hospital since July. Of that number, 12 died.
The minister explained that seven babies died in July, two in August, two in September, and one in October.
He also disclosed that the ratio of nurses to babies in the neonatal intensive care unit should be one nurse to two babies. The critical nursing shortage facing Jamaica has upended those ratios.
“We’re now at one (nurse) to seven (babies) and sometimes more. And it does create a challenge for infection prevention and control,” said Tufton.
As suggested by the minister, the situation was blamed for the breakdown in infection controls at VJH.
Despite their best efforts, the staff was reportedly unable to bring the situation under control, resulting in the health ministry turning to PAHO for help.
A PAHO team also reportedly visited Bustamante Hospital for Children. Tufton said PAHO’s report on the situation at VJH should be available in the weeks to come.
Amid those assurances, the PNP struck by Thursday, calling for Tufton’s removal from the Health and Wellness portfolio.
Dr Dayton Campbell
Leading the call for Tufton’s removal was PNP’s General Secretary, Dr Dayton Campbell, who described the minister’s acceptance of the deaths of the babies and their families’ trauma as “callous and unacceptable”.
“While neonatal mortality due to infection is not uncommon, a 43 per cent mortality rate is alarming, and people must be held accountable for this massive death toll,” Campbell declared.
In seemingly referencing the 2015 resignation of Ferguson, Campbell said health ministers of previous administrations have lost their portfolios for neonatal deaths with far lower mortality rates.
The PNP general secretary insisted that it is not enough for the health minister to “merely publicly admit to this tragic loss and stop short by saying a high-profile team has been sent in.
“This approach neither shows accountability to the families of the neonates lost, nor inspires confidence in the expectant families whose babies may need neonatal care in the nation’s premier maternity facility in the near future,” a release from the PNP said.
The party held a press conference on Friday, during which Golding, Campbell and Spokesman on Health, Dr Morais Guy, repeated the party’s call for Tufton to resign over the deaths of the babies.
Said Golding: “The large number of mortalities, of death that occurred in July, did not result in information flowing to the public, and indeed we are even told that the prime minister himself was kept in the dark for a long period of time, and indeed it was not until the whistle was blown recently, within the last few days, that this matter came to the public’s attention.
“There is a history to this sort of thing that is well known. Past ministers have resigned when confronted with a similar situation of lack of proper care…, resulting in a sense that somebody should be held accountable at the top, and the right thing must be done.”
But Tufton responded a day before to calls for him to step aside as health minister.
Speaking in a radio interview on Thursday, Tufton said the prime minister “will make that call”.
Continuing, he said: “… Until he (Holness) says (I should resign), I will continue to give it my best shot”.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness
According to Tufton, more work will have to be done in public hospitals to improve infection control.
The perspectives on social media on whether Tufton should resign were relatively mixed, with some individuals describing such calls as mere politics, pointing to the significant work the health minister has done relative to his management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Tufton not going nowhere, because unlike PNP, we remember how he managed coronavirus (pandemic) well. Standing firm with Tufton,” wrote Camille Francis, a Facebook user.
Shared Erica Guy: “A gweh dem fi gweh, if it wasn’t for Mr Tufton, Jamaica wouldn’t have space to bury dead. Uno too ungrateful, resign weh, it was there long before Mr Tufton took over as Health Minister.”
Wrote Carol McIntosh: “At least Tufton called in PAHO, what did Fenton (Ferguson) do when he said they were not real babies? I don’t like hypocrisy, so please leave Tufton.”
However, Facebook user, Michy Marsh, had a different view on the matter relative to Tufton and bacterial infection.
“He (Tufton) did not kill those babies, but the mere fact that all this information was hidden from the public for months; begs me to question, what else is he hiding from the public?
“My heart goes out to those parents who lost their babies. Until these same situations we are all here talking about knock on our doors, that’s when we will understand the reality of what’s actually happening on our little Island,” Marsh argued.
Seemingly agreeing with calls for Tufton to resign, Carol Morgan stated: “It’s unbelievable that these ministers/persons continue to hold their positions no matter the disasters.
“We want Ja (Jamaica) to be like England where politicians can lose their posts based on their poor performance.”
Karen Leslie, a Facebook user, said calling for Tufton’s resignation does not help the current situation.
“It’s in their (PNP) remit to do so, (because) the JLP called for Fenton Ferguson’s resignation in the ‘baby scandal!’
“However, that’s not going to help! The country needs to know when the problem began, why the country wasn’t told, what is being done to help and improve the situation, and what help has been given to the parents of the babies,” she said.
Amid it all, some other persons are standing firmly behind Tufton to remain in his job.
“So what the minister has to do with this incident now? Wouldn’t it make more sense to ask for the resignation of the head of VJH?” asked Renard Raymond, another social media user.
“Mr (Dayton) Campbell, I believe you should resign following this statement. I can recall when an allegation was brought against you, there wasn’t any resignation forthcoming from you,” he added.
Said Amora Hanson: “I don’t do politics… But they are making it seem as if the man hurt the babies himself…”
In response to that comment, Dave Blair said: “I’m sure Mr Fenton (Ferguson) didn’t hurt the babies either. Remember it was the JLP who put pressure on Dr Fenton to resign.”