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Sanction Tufton for hiding baby deaths – Ferguson

Ex-minister says incumbent spared axing because of class, race, colour

Published:Friday | October 28, 2022 | 12:13 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
Former Health Minister Fenton Ferguson.
Former Health Minister Fenton Ferguson.
Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness.
Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness.
Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton.
Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton.

While not calling for the sacking of Dr Christopher Tufton in the wake of revelations about the deaths of 14 newborns over four months from a bacterial outbreak at Victoria Jubilee Hospital (VJH), former health minister Dr Fenton Ferguson said the...

While not calling for the sacking of Dr Christopher Tufton in the wake of revelations about the deaths of 14 newborns over four months from a bacterial outbreak at Victoria Jubilee Hospital (VJH), former health minister Dr Fenton Ferguson said the significant delay in divulging the crisis was a grave error for which the incumbent portfolio minister must be held accountable.

Ferguson, who was relieved of the health portfolio after the so-called dead babies scandal in 2015 when 18 newborns died at two public hospitals from an outbreak of Klebsiella pneumoniae, said the entire Opposition at the time called for him to be booted.

With Klebsiella and Acinetobacter being blamed for the deaths of 14 newborns from July to October 2022, Ferguson argued that Tufton was negligent for not reporting such a major development to Cabinet or the prime minister prior to the information being highlighted by the media months later.

“There is negligence, there is secrecy, and there is an absence of transparency,” Ferguson told The Gleaner on Thursday.

According to Ferguson, when he was informed about the deaths of the babies during his tenure, he immediately reported the matter to Cabinet.

“How could I not report to Cabinet? I was not on a frolic of my own, but part of a collective group of persons, the executive, and I had a responsibility to report not just to the prime minister but to the Cabinet of Jamaica,” he said.

The former health minister under the People’s National Party administration indicated that the chorus for his resignation contrasts with what he termed a near-deafening silence from some quarters.

Alluding that the politics of colour might be at play, Ferguson said that his “melanin is just not right”.

Ferguson is dark-skinned compared to Tufton’s lighter hue.

In a Gleaner article of November 2, 2015, the Jamaica Manufacturers’ Association and the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica issued calls for the Office of the Prime Minister to make the responsible parties pay for the egregious circumstances that resulted in four outbreaks of Klebsiella and Serratia bacteria at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) and Cornwall Regional Hospital over a five-month period.

“I still maintain that classism and race still remain a big thing for Jamaica. I am not saying it with water in my mouth,” Ferguson declared.

“There are no less than six or more situations that I have seen facing the present minister that, if I were the minister under those circumstances, I could not stand a chance as a snowball in hell,” he added.

“It is still sad to know that in a country we are faced with this kind of situation where persons are able to get away with things while others are hanged,” Ferguson contended.

However, on the question of the deaths of the babies, Ferguson warned against the politicisation of health.

“The seriousness of the situation is about the babies that would have died, but you cannot say that because the babies died, the minister should resign,” he reasoned. “I am saying that for past, present, and future ministers.”

Following the 2015 Klebsiella outbreak, Ferguson said he invited the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) for support. A commissioned report made significant recommendations to the health ministry.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the People’s National Party (PNP) called for the immediate resignation of Tufton. The party also called for a comprehensive probe into the deaths of neonates in the VJH nursery.

The deaths of nine newborns in July – seven from Klebsiella pneumoniae and two from Acinetobacter – represented a mortality rate of 43 per cent from a total of 21 infections.

In a Gleaner interview on Thursday, Tufton said that he informed Prime Minister Andrew Holness about the deaths of the neonates on Wednesday.

“Hindsight is 2020 vision, and so one can always second-guess their decisions that they would have made prior to now,” said Tufton.

He said at the time he was informed in August, the health team had already started to cauterise the situation, which manifested in a sharp decline in the death rate. Two newborns died from the bacterial outbreak in both August and September, while one has perished so far in October.

“There was the view that they had the matter under sufficient control,” Tufton said.

The health and wellness minister said that he asked PAHO to carry out a quick assessment at not only VJH but the Bustamante Hospital for Children and Spanish Town Hospital. A report from the hemispheric organisation is pending.

Tufton said he did not make public the crisis because he feared that doing so would generate panic and hysteria, causing expectant mothers to shy away from the primary institution that offers a range of services for which there were limited alternatives.

“I am not going to say that I regret making that call, because I think the panic was not created,” he said.

Quizzed on the previous PAHO report after the 2015 outbreak, Tufton said that the document would have informed the review of infection control and prevention measures at VJH.

On the question of the call for his resignation, Tufton said: “We live in the cut and thrust of a political environment that sometimes becomes toxic and tit for tat – all of those issues are fair game.

“People work with agendas and they position themselves and arguments for all sorts of reasons, and I am not naïve to that process. I have been in the thick of it; I have been the victim of it on many occasions. And some of the strangest places you get some of these distractions.”