Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, has fired the country’s health minister after a blaze at a hospital Wednesday night killed at least 11 newborns. A series of recent, deadly tragedies at Senegal’s hospitals and clinics has raised doubts about the country’s health care system, which is 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 nine-months-pregnant woman sought emergency care at a hospital in the city of Louga. She was denied a C-section because the appointment was not scheduled and died 20 hours later. 

The babies that were killed in Wednesday’s blaze were being kept under a special light meant to treat jaundice, which is a common condition among preterm babies.

Aminatou Sar is the Senegal country director for a nonprofit, the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH). The main problem behind the incidents, she said, is a lack of maintenance. 

“And these tragedies will happen again and again, unfortunately, 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,” Sar said.

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 percent to 80 percent. 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, Sar said, particularly because they are amplified on social media.

The fire was caused by a short circuit. 

Ousmane Dia is the director of public health facilities with Senegal’s ministry of health. 

“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.”

In response to the tragedy, Senegalese President Macky Sall announced three days of national mourning and ousted health minister Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr. 

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. 

President Sall is expected to visit mourning families in Tivaouane Saturday.  

 

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