Senegal's President Sall sacks health minister over death of 11 newborn babies


President Macky Sall of Senegal

Senegal’s President Macky Sall has sacked the country’s health minister, over the death of 11 newborn babies in a hospital fire.

Sall also announced three days of national mourning.

Eleven newborn babies died in a hospital fire blamed on an electrical short circuit in Senegal’s western city of Tivaouane, authorities said Thursday.

It was the latest in a series of hospital deaths that have exposed the weaknesses of the nation’s healthcare system.

Macky Sall was abroad when the incident occurred. He would return early and visit the hospital on Saturday, his office said.

The sacked Health Minister Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr was quoted in media reports blaming an electrical fault for the fire.

Sarr was in Geneva attending a meeting with the WHO when the tragedy occurred. He said an investigation was under way.

The maternity unit was equipped to take care of 13 babies.

“At the time of the fire, there were 11, whom nurses were unable to save,” the minister said.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted that he was “beyond heartbroken with this tragic news.

“I’m sending my deepest condolences to the parents and families of the babies who lost their lives.”

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The tragedy in Tivaouane comes after several other public health incidents in Senegal, which suffers from a great disparity between urban and rural areas in healthcare services.

In the northern town of Linguere in late April, a fire broke out at a hospital and four newborn babies were killed.

The town’s mayor cited an electrical malfunction in an air conditioning unit in the maternity ward.

Wednesday’s accident came over a month after the nation mourned the death of a pregnant woman who waited in vain for a caesarean section.

The woman, Astou Sokhna, arrived at a hospital in the northern city of Louga in pain. The staff refused to accommodate her request for a C-section, saying it was not scheduled.

She died on April 1, 20 hours after arrival.

Sokhna’s death caused a wave of outrage across the country over the dire state of the health system. Sarr acknowledged two weeks later that the death could have been avoided.

Three midwives on duty the night Sokhna died were given a six-month suspended prison sentence on May 11 by the High Court of Louga for “failure to assist a person in danger” in connection with her case.

Amnesty International’s Senegal director Seydi Gassama said his organisation had called for an inspection and upgrade for neonatal services in hospitals across Senegal after the “atrocious” death of the four babies in Linguere.

With the new tragedy, Amnesty “urges the government to set up an independent commission of inquiry to determine responsibility and punish the culprits, no matter the level they are at in the state apparatus”.

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