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A tragedy

It was a preventable tragedy. But complacency of our health workers at the national referral hospital resulted in the death of 11 babies in 19 days.

This tragedy should have jolted the conscience of the nation, which is quick to light butter lamps on the demise of foreigners but offers no word of condolence when our children die.

The nation is in the middle of an election but for our politicians who are promising more and calling for change and continuity, the death of infants find no place in their campaigns.

We should be ashamed. But we are not.

Compassion compounds complacency and the question of accountability remains. Question the country’s largest hospital, equipped with disgruntled health workers and modern equipment, of its lapses, and the hospital goes on the defence.

Maybe if it had spent as much time and resources to its neonatal intensive care unit and the hospital’s water supply system as it had in converting its parking space into a commercial centre, the 11 infants would still be alive. Of what use are the over 200 standard operating procedures when one of the immediate actions taken was reminding health workers to wash their hands before touching the babies.

Several actions are claimed to have been taken to control the spread of the infection. The NICU was disinfected while tests confirmed that the hospital’s water supply was contaminated. Water supply tanks were cleaned but the problem was with the distribution lines, not the water tanks. In the death of the 11 babies, we saw the consequence of Thimphu Thromde’s inefficiency in providing safe drinking water. The audit authority has already pointed out poor safeguard of the water infrastructures and inefficient distribution lines.  It had found that the Motithang water treatment plant, one of the tanks that supply water to the hospital, was turbid during monsoon. Turbid water may have no direct health effects but the audit authority noted that it has health risk in the long run because it can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth. It also indicates the presence of disease-causing organisms including bacteria and viruses.

The thromde should be held as accountable for the deaths of the 11 babies as the hospital.  The health ministry, the authority that oversees the hospital has asked for reports on the mishap. Given the various infection control measures put in place, asking for reports is not enough to fix accountability and regain the declining confidence of the people in our healthcare system.

Neo-natal death is responsible for 55 percent of the under-five deaths in Bhutan, according to a recent report. The lack of confidence in our health workers to save the lives of infants was evident when they were adamant in revising the targets in the annual performance agreements. Our health workers knew that the system was not equipped to prevent deaths, let alone save lives.

The country is in the midst of selling dreams to the people, overwhelmed by allegations, slander, half-truths and fake news. In telling us that we are all responsible, the premature death of the 11 babies has woken us up to the realities confronting the nation.

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