Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has given the clearest indication yet that she has no intention of relieving Dr Fenton Ferguson of his ministerial responsibility for health, telling the minister in Parliament yesterday to ensure that adequate systems are in place to prevent the recurrence of another dead-baby scandal.
“I want to extend sympathies to members of the families, and I hope that the Ministry of Health and the minister will look at the present system to see what needs to be done to ensure that what happened will never, ever happen again,” Simpson Miller said yesterday.
The prime minister was making her first public comment on the matter involving the deaths of 19 babies at two of the country’s leading health facilities. Nineteen babies have died at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) and the Cornwall Regional Hospital as a result of being infected with the klebsiella and serratia bacteria. Ferguson said that most of the babies who died were less than seven months premature, less than two pounds and, in many cases, very ill.
“When babies are born under seven months, their organs are not well developed … . Their immune systems are significantly compromised, so I don’t want anyone to give any impression that these are babies in the real sense,” said Ferguson before being attacked by opposition MPs who said they were babies.
“I’m talking about neonates versus full-term babies, and that is why they end up in the nurseries because they have special issues.”
Ferguson, following a statement to the House of Representatives, was subjected to hours of grilling by opposition members of Parliament, some of whom demanded his resignation over the matter. He said that the deaths of the babies was regrettable, even as he stressed that Jamaica’s infant mortality rate was 12 per 1,000 births, down from 21 per 1,000 births in 1990.
Yesterday, appearing uncharacteristically ruffled, Ferguson resisted suggestions that he resign and said that those who were culpable would pay. At one point, Ferguson told Darly Vaz, West Portland member of Parliament (MP), “You are not the brightest man in town.” Vaz has been vocal on the matter, and after posing several questions to the minister, took his seat and said, “You just don’t get it.”
“Tek blame fi what?” Ferguson muttered from his seat after opposition MP Karl Samuda suggested that he accept responsibility for the matter.
Ferguson said that two persons have, so far, resigned as a result of the scandal and that “the matter of culpability is being pursued”. Dr Cecil White, chief executive officer of the UHWI, and Professor Trevor McCartney, the hospital’s medical chief of staff, have resigned.
Samuda, who declared that he did not “give a damn” about the statistics put forward by Ferguson to support the view that Jamaica had a good public-health system, said he should not be “fearful about being fired or being forced to resign”.
“We must hold our people responsible for carrying out their duties,” Ferguson said.
“As a result of our investigations, there have been two casualties,” Ferguson said, even as he defended Chief Medical Officer Dr Marion Bullock DuCasse, who, former health minister Rudyard Spencer suggested failed to perform her role in reporting to the minister.
Spencer said that it was “at least unfortunate that she took so long to advise” the minister about the outbreak.
Ferguson said that they got two letters from two members of the staff of the UHWI and they did not indicate the need for an intervention. Bullock DuCasse learnt about the outbreak on September 7 but did not tell him until September 16.
“When she got it on the 7th of September, there were not 18 deaths … that would have been on the serratia outbreak. It is not like she had got something saying, ‘Eighteen neonates have died’ and kept it to herself,” Ferguson said.
He said that when he was advised on September 16, he immediately acted on the matter.
Dr Horace Chang, MP for North West St James, said “the failure of the system is almost a disaster”.
“We are aware that there will be infection in the system from time to time … clearly, here, the system failed. You are the minister and you should have taken action already … . The fact that you have been reported to on the 7th and the entire system failed and caused the deaths of babies, you should have removed some people already if you are not going to take responsibility yourself,” Chang said.
Ferguson said that based on investigations, there was “a breakdown in the reporting system and persons have paid a price for having done that”.
Ferguson told fellow legislators that a special unit was being set up in the Ministry of Health to monitor both private- and public-sector facilities for newborn babies. He said that the unit would be headed by neonatologist Dr Michelle-Ann Richards Dawson and would comprise Dr Jacqueline Bisasor McKenzie and Dr Simone Spence, with support from the ministry’s epidemiologist, Dr Karen Webster, and the chief nursing officer.