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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 March 2019

Tunisia: Eleven newborns die in maternity clinic

Health Minister quits days after deaths

The Wassila Bourguiba Hospital, in Tunis, where 11 newborn babies died within 24 hours. Reuters 
The Wassila Bourguiba Hospital, in Tunis, where 11 newborn babies died within 24 hours. Reuters 

Tunisia's Health Minister, Abdul Raouf Cherif, resigned late on Saturday, following the sudden death of 11 premature babies being treated at the Rabta neonatal clinic of the Wassila Bourguiba state maternity hospital.

The infants died within 24 hours between Thursday and Friday – the cause of their deaths was likely due to a blood infection, the health ministry said.

Outside the Tunis hospital on Sunday, patients and passers-by tried to make sense of the tragedy. The families of the deceased having since departed, the bodies of their children carried home in used cardboard boxes.

Senior health official Nabiha Borsali Falfoul told Tunisian television it was not uncommon for hospitals to use whatever they have at hand to return babies’ cadavers to their families.

An initial investigation by the government showed the infants had succumbed to septic shock in the 48 hours between Thursday and Friday. A statement by the Tunisian Paediatric Society said an infected food product was administered to the premature infants intravenously.

Leading newspaper Essafa on Sunday cried foul and compared the deaths of the babies to a "state crime".

Tunisia’s health sector, once a source of both national pride and a preferred destination for regional health tourists, has been hit by acute funding shortages and the defection of many of its highly trained staff members to more lucrative positions in Europe and elsewhere.

With the Tunisian currency in free-fall, importing much needed drugs has proven especially problematic, with interruptions in the supply of many regular pharmaceuticals now commonplace.

Doctors groups and medical societies have for some time said that the system is on the brink of collapse. According to a statement by the country’s labour union, the UGTT, around 1,500 Doctors are expected to leave the country’s public health sector between 2018 and 2019 rising to 2,700 by 2022. Overall, the sector is said to be some 700 million Tunisian dinars (Dh844.7ml) in debt.

But the latest tragedy has brought the scale of the crisis into sharp relief for a Tunisian public already struggling with falling standards of living and rising prices.

Tunisia’s politicians have been quick to react. Shortly after the announcement of the children's deaths on Saturday night, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed convened a crisis group of leading members of his cabinet, said to have included the Ministers of Justice, the Interior and the outgoing Health Minister to determine the exact cause of the deaths and coordinate a government response.

According to the statement on the Prime Minister's Facebook page, criminal proceedings will be undertaken against any individuals should negligence be proven. An examination of the country’s various health structures is also said to take place, with broad remedial actions expected in future.

Updated: March 12, 2019 03:54 PM

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