Wed | Feb 8, 2023

Tufton: Current dead-baby crisis different from Ferguson’s time

Published:Sunday | October 30, 2022 | 12:14 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Dr Christopher Tufton, Minister of Health and Wellness.
Dr Christopher Tufton, Minister of Health and Wellness.
Dr Fenton Ferguson, former Minister of Health.
Dr Fenton Ferguson, former Minister of Health.
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Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has scoffed at the call by the opposition People’s National Party for him to resign over the deaths of 14 babies over a four-month period from a bacterial outbreak at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital...

Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has scoffed at the call by the opposition People’s National Party for him to resign over the deaths of 14 babies over a four-month period from a bacterial outbreak at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital, noting that the current situation is not similar to the one which felled ex-minister Fenton Ferguson.

In an interview with The Sunday Gleaner yesterday, Tufton again denied trying to cover up the matter unfolding at the island’s premier maternity facility that occurred between July and October. He also said he gave no instructions for the matter to be kept quiet.

Tufton confirmed the outbreak and acknowledged that 14 babies died from Klebsiella and Acinetobacter bacterial infections from July to October 2022, after reports surfaced in the media last week.

“There was absolutely no attempt at cover-up. I have learnt that anything known by more than one person is not a secret. I would be foolhardy to think I could hide this kind of information. It was simply a management of risk and in a context where the matter was being effectively dealt with. This is not unusual, as public health faces many outlier incidents each week. We deal with them as they occur and focus on who are most affected rather than the general public, unless we think it is necessary,” he said.

He reiterated that this was a decision not to relay the information to the public and trigger panic and hysteria, as the number of deaths was falling. He said that, while cases of infection remain, the problem was contained and the Pan American Health Organization has been assisting in this regard.

Major development

With Klebsiella and Acinetobacter being blamed for the deaths of the 14 newborns, former Health Minister Dr Fenton 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,” he told The Gleaner on Thursday, noting that he had reported a similar outbreak to the Simpson Miller-led Cabinet in 2015, immediately after he was made aware.

Ferguson had denied knowledge of the situation when news broke, and it was felt that his technocrats kept him in the dark.

He also shot himself in the foot in an address in Parliament when he said the neonates were “not babies in the real sense”.

That scandal, which saw 18 babies dying, later resulted in Ferguson being relieved of the portfolio.

But, on Saturday, Tufton dismissed suggestions that the current situation mimicked the 2015 incident.

“I think the comparison of this issue with the issue surrounding former Minister Ferguson’s resignation is faulty, and his recent public comments on this matter were unfortunate on several grounds. Let me say, I understand his apparent lingering hurt and I hold no malice in my response, but, if he looks objectively at the issue, he would understand the difference,” Tufton told The Sunday Gleaner.

INSENSITIVE UTTERANCES

Tufton said that while Ferguson claimed ignorance initially back then, in this case, he acted swiftly with the team to address the issue.

“Wittingly or unwittingly, some of his (Ferguson’s) public utterances on the matter, unfortunately, showed insensitivity and made the situation worse, and caused further concerns about his judgement to manage the situation,” Tufton said.

He again suggested that a shortage of nursing staff could have worsened the recent situation.

“In the case of neonatal intensive care units, the best practice is one or at most two babies to a nurse. Unfortunately, due to staff shortage, we are operating at one to seven or eight. Even with their best efforts, the infection risk increases exponentially. That’s the reality,” he said, adding that, while there are other factors, it takes people to coordinate and implement infection control measures.

This is the second outbreak of bacterial infection at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital Tufton has faced, the first being in 2016, shortly after he was assigned the portfolio.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com