Death of 12 babies shakes Tunisia, prompts resignation of health minister

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Tunisia’s health minister Abdel-Raouf El-Sherif resigned on Saturday following the sudden deaths of 12 newborn babies at a state maternity hospital in the capital Tunis.

A statement by the health ministry indicated that the babies died of septic shock.

The investigations pointed to an infection caused by an intravenous feeding product, elaborated a statement by the Tunisian pediatrics society.

The deaths pointed to the “precarious conditions in which health professionals work,” said the association.

Investigations into the cause of the babies’ deaths have been launched by the health ministry and state prosecutors, state news agency TAP said.

The health ministry is conducting medical and hygiene checks, as well as investigating the management of the hospital pharmacy, a spokesman said.

Schools and all educational establishments in Tunisia held a minute of silence on Monday to mourn the lives of the 11 infants, and halted lessons for 15 minutes.

The health minister had faced calls to resign following the babies’ deaths over the course of 24 hours on Thursday and Friday at the Rapta clinic.

Tunisian Prime minister Youssef Chahed appointed Sonia Beshikh, the minister of Youth and Sport, as Acting Health minister.

In a press conference held on Monday, Beshikh said that the deaths were caused by "infections from inside the hospital."

She added that seven babies were currently receiving treatment in reanimation rooms.

Beshikh was minister of state for health before the recent government reshuffle.

“Preventive measures and treatment have been taken to avoid other victims and to ensure the health status of other babies in the maternity ward,” the health ministry said in a statement.

The chairman of the Tunisian Association of Pediatrics, Mohammed Douaaji, who is a member of the newly announced investigation committee over the deaths, denied to Tunisian national TV that the serum was expired.

He added that the deceased babies were suffering from health problems “such as incomplete growth, and some of them were under artificial respiration, which makes their immunity weaker and more vulnerable.”

“There are currently some babies under surveillance,” he said, noting that some of them were responding to the treatment.

The incident sparked a wave of anger amid Tunisians after the babies were handed over to their parents in cardboard boxes.

Tunisians have complained of a deterioration in state services since the overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Tunisia’s revolution brought a democratic transition, but the country has also witnessed an economic crisis.

The public health system was the country’s pride, however during recent years, it has suffered management and financial problems that have lowered treatment standards and caused drug shortages.

Critics also say the public sector is rife with corruption.