The government was forced to make a public statement giving details of the deaths of the infants, who were mostly premature babies, after the parent of one child spoke to the local media last week.
Dr Alison Nicholson, consultant medical microbiologist at University Hospital of the West Indies, one of the hospitals affected, urged the public not to panic.
She said the deaths were caused by two different bacterial infections, acquired in hospital since July. These were both common infections, klebsiella and serratia.
She said: “There is a growing panic in the public because of the way this has come out. But we are not panicking in the hospital. This is something we have to deal with from time to time, and we are doing everything we can to stop the outbreak. We have closed the nursery and considered closing down our neonatal unit, but the babies need neonatal support. If it is withdrawn they will die, so we have to keep the unit open.”
The health minister, Dr Fenton Ferguson, told a press conference in Kingston that he only learned of the situation last Friday, the same day one of the parents of the babies talked to the media. The public were only informed of the outbreak when he made his statement on Tuesday.
Ferguson said that a team of specialists had been appointed to investigate the outbreaks and try to stop the spread of the infections.
Dr Karen Webster, an epidemiologist, said there had been four outbreaks since July of bacterial infections acquired in hospital. Out of 42 cases 18 babies, mostly premature, had died. The outbreaks are ongoing at University Hospital of the West Indies and Cornwall regional hospital – which recently opened a new unit to isolate and care for patients with infectious diseases including Ebola.
Webster said a number of measures have been put in place to militate against the spread of the infection, including increased sanitary measures to ensure neonatal areas are kept clean.
The rate of infant mortality in Jamaica – deaths of children before they reach the age of one – has been falling steadily since the 1990s. In 2010 the country had a mortality rate of 17 deaths per 1,000 live births. Last year, according to World Bank figures, the rate had fallen to 14 deaths per 1,000 live births. That compares with six per 1,000 live births in the United States, and four per 1,000 births in Britain.
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