The Civil Hospital located in Ahmedabad’s Asarwa region is Asia’s biggest hospital. Ordinarily the hospital’s neonatal unit is one filled with the gurgles and squeaks of the little ones who have brought much happiness and light into their parents’ lives. Today, however, the department is plunged in darkness and the painful cries of new parents and families resound across the hospital’s hallways. At least 18 newborn infants have died in the hospital over the past three days. Nine of these babies died with a short span of six hours on Saturday, 28 October, 2017. Most of these infants were being treated by the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the hospital.
The parents of the infants that died at the Ahmedabad are heartbroken and many of them did not have the joy of holding their children while they lived. The hospital, however, has been quick to accept any blame on its part. The administration has gone on record to say that the very reason that these infants were placed in intensive care was because they were keeping poor health. Some were born premature, while others were malnourished and extremely underweight. Yet others were born with life-threatening congenital complications including respiratory ailments. In a press release, the hospital said, “Of the nine deaths in 24 hours, five babies were referred from distant places – Lunawada, Surendranagar, Mansa, Viramgam, Himmatnagar – and were having severe life threatening conditions such as extremely low birth weight (around 1.1 kg), hyaline membrane disease, early onset septicaemia and disseminated intra-vascular coagulation”. The other four children were born in the Civil Hospital itself and about these infants the release said, “(they) died due to lethal complications such as severe birth asphyxia and meconium aspiration”.
One news report suggests that on an average about 5 newborn infants succumb to death at the Civil Hospital of Ahmedabad each day. The hospital administration has put down the death of about 18 infants to a matter of coincidence but this seems to be part of a sinister trend that we have witnessed across the country over the past few months.
Towards end August this year, about 160 children and infants were reported dead (in a span of 30 days) while under treatment at the Baba Raghav Das hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Lack of oxygen cylinders was the cause, said hospital authorities. 49 children also died in the state’s Ram Manohar Lohia hospital in Farrukhabad in August 2017.
Reports of the death of some 52 infants (in the same period) in the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College hospital of Jamshedpur (Jharkhand) shocked the nation. This spate of infant and child deaths is not specific to any particular region, it seems. 90 infant deaths were also recorded between June and August in Karnataka’s Kolar Sri Narasimha Raja Hospital. In August again 55 infant deaths were registered in the Nasik Civil Hospital (Maharashtra) cause a mass outrage. A few years ago Kolkata’s B C Roy Children’s Hospital was at the centre of a controversy when 35 children admitted there died in a matter of 5 days.
The only thing common to all these hospitals is the fact that they are all state-run government hospitals. They all claim that the number of deaths is in keeping with the high number of deliveries handled by these hospitals. While there may be some truth to the fact that the middle and lower income families choose public hospital over private nursing homes, particularly since medical costs are exorbitant, this does not seem to be an adequate explanation. The public healthcare system in the country needs a complete overhaul. No matter which political party is in power (at the state level or the centre) this rather pressing need of the country is not being addressed adequately. Out government hospitals routinely lack the equipment, infrastructure, resources, or skilled personnel to address serious healthcare issues.
The Gujarat government has ordered a probe into the death of infants in the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital. The Neonatal Intensive Care ward is a 100 bed unit and about 10 percent of the patients have succumbed over a period of 3 days despite the availability of all modern facilities such as neonatal resuscitation, ventilator and blood transfusion. We can only hope and pray that the government-led probe is an objective one and apart from detailing the cause of death of the children the panel will also spell out remedial measures that the hospital and others in the country can follow to avert such calamities in future.