TIVAOUANE, Senegal – Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, has fired the health minister and called for three days of mourning following a hospital fire that killed 11 newborn babies in this western city.
Sall dismissed Health Minister Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr on Thursday evening, a day after the deadly blaze in the maternity ward at Mame Abdou Aziz Sy Dabakh Hospital, which was blamed on an electrical short circuit.
The interior minister said authorities would investigate conditions at that public hospital and other Senegalese health care centers, the Associated Press reported, citing local media.
A series of recent, deadly tragedies at Senegal’s hospitals and clinics has raised doubts about the country’s health care system, widely considered one of the best in West Africa.
In April 2021, four newborns died in a fire at a hospital in the northern city of Linguère. The town’s mayor said the blaze was sparked by an electrical malfunction of an air conditioning unit.
Six months later, a baby at a Dakar hospital burned to death after being left in an incubator.
Just two months ago, a woman who was nine months pregnant sought emergency care at a hospital in the northern city of Louga. She was denied a cesarean section because she did not have an appointment and died 20 hours later.
The babies killed in Wednesday’s blaze were being kept under a special light meant to treat jaundice, a common condition among preterm babies. Three babies were rescued from the fire.
Nogaye Mar, whose newborn grandchild died in the fire, grieved outside the hospital Thursday. The babies were unattended, she said.
‘It was around 9 p.m. that we heard the first news about the fire but there were no hospital staff on site,’ Mar told VOA. ‘The three guards were all downstairs. The first alert came from someone who had brought dinner to sick people. He said there was smoke; they all smelled it but did not know where it was coming from. It was when the fire really caught on that they managed to locate him [the baby], but when they came to the rescue, it was already too late.’
Adja Ndella Gueye, a patient at the hospital, also complained of staffing issues.
‘If the people on duty were at their posts, we could have avoided this tragedy, so the negligence is real,’ she said. ‘In this hospital, there is a reception problem and we, the users, experience the worst here. It is time for the management of the hospital to be reviewed. Everyone complains about it, especially us women who give life. Any woman who has ever given birth to a child has a hard time coping with this dreadful situation. I repeat, if the staff were in place, we would not count so many victims.’
Amnesty International’s Senegal office, in a tweet Friday, called for a judicial inquiry into the tragedy as well as ‘a rapid upgrade of equipment and facilities in hospitals.’
Aminatou Sar is the Senegal country director for the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), a nonprofit organization. The main problem behind the incidents, she said, is a lack of maintenance.
‘And these tragedies will happen again and again, unfortunately,’ Sar said, ‘until we really understand that it is not a matter of people or of how much money or how much expensive equipment we put in the health facilities if we are not able to provide electricity correctly and maintain this equipment.’
In Senegal, many women are wary of hospitals and prefer to give birth at home. But the expansion of health care facilities to rural areas, coupled with educational efforts, has led to significant improvements.
Over the last 25 years, the number of women giving birth in health facilities increased from 47% to 80%. During that time, infant mortality dropped from 138 deaths per 1,000 births to 38 deaths per 1,000 births today.
Incidents such as Wednesday’s fire have the potential to hinder progress, PATH’s Sar said, particularly because they are amplified on social media.
‘What we can say is that there was a technical failure because there was a short circuit, and in all systems adverse events can happen,’ said Ousmane Dia, director of public health facilities with Senegal’s ministry of health. ‘There could be a number of origins. Sometimes at hospitals, you see people plug in their tea kettle or their phones, and that can cause malfunctions.’
Dia said Sarr had done extraordinary work as health minister, particularly in regard to Senegal’s COVID-19 response, and thanked him for his service.
PATH’s Aminatou Sar said the move was a good sign the government was taking the problem seriously, but that it doesn’t solve the larger issue.
Sall is expected to visit mourning families in Tivaouane Saturday.
Seydina Aba Gueye reported for VOA French to Africa from Tivaouane, Senegal. Annika Hammerschlag reported for VOA from the capital, Dakar.