Babies admitted to the neonatal unit at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital are gravely ill. The odds are not in their favour. Some of them are born months early, many of them with complex medical conditions and their organs are not fully developed — they are susceptible to a range of infections most people fight off with relative ease.
It is the sad reality that about 30 babies being treated there die every year.
And while it is devastating for staff when any of these tiny babies loses their fight for life, it is even more traumatic that an outbreak of a bacterial infection on one of the wards in the unit has claimed the lives of three patients.
An investigation has been launched to find the source of the infection, with the possibility the water supply or equipment could be to blame.
But, until an exact cause can be found, this will be of little consolation to staff at the unit.
Doctors, nurses, cleaners, midwives — everyone who works there — are now asking themselves could more have been done to stop the outbreak.
One NHS employee described the guilt and grief staff at the unit will be experiencing.
“They will be wondering whether it was something they did, whether they could have done more to prevent this, it is an awful situation to be in,” he said.
“Staff on these wards care deeply about the patients and they will be heartbroken at what has happened.”
Indeed, the spotlight has now been turned on hygiene standards in the unit to ascertain how the deadly bacteria was able to take hold of a facility where some of the most vulnerable patients in Northern Ireland are treated.
The presence of the bug pseudomonas in the neonatal unit at the Belfast hospital first came to light following the death of a premature baby on January 6.
Swabs were taken from the skin of the baby, who was being treated in the intensive care ward of the unit, and within 72 hours it was confirmed that they had indeed died as a result of pseudomonas.
Patients with the bacteria can be asymptomatic — meaning they have no symptoms — or they can suffer from a range of symptoms, including a chest or urinary tract infection.
It is not known whether the first victim of this bacteria was displaying any symptoms prior to their tragic death.
Less than a week later — on January 13 — a second baby being treated in the intensive care ward of the unit also died, and again swabs were taken.
It is not known whether they had any symptoms but health bosses have confirmed that on Monday the swab results revealed the baby had died from the same strain of pseudomonas.
It was at this stage an official outbreak was declared and measures were put in place to contain the infection and ensure the safety of other patients in the unit.
The two deaths only emerged on Thursday afternoon when Belfast Health & Social Care Trust released a statement releasing details of the outbreak.
People around Northern Ireland were stunned by the news — parents in particular were horrified to learn two families had been robbed of their precious children as a result of a relatively unheard-of infection.
Stories about the deadly effects of C difficile and MRSA have featured regularly in the news in recent years but this is the first time pseudomonas has made the headlines in Northern Ireland.
But, within hours of the Press release being issued, another baby being treated in the unit succumbed to the bacterial infection and Northern Ireland awoke to the shocking news yesterday morning that a third baby had lost their life.
A Press conference at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital was swiftly called to address public concern over the outbreak. Health Minister Edwin Poots arrived almost an hour late after a briefing from trust officials on the latest developments and looked like a man under pressure.
He has faced some difficult questions since taking up his post but this is the first time the NHS has been rocked by such a devastating health scare under his watch.
He was joined by senior management from the trust, a consultant working on the affected ward and a health expert from the Public Health Agency. They went into detail about the bacteria — where it comes from, how a patient is affected, how the outbreak developed since the first death. They gave assurances to pregnant women — the hospital remains open as normal. However, they released no details about the parents now in mourning after losing their babies to this infection.
Regardless of the cause of death, three families have been plunged into mourning and are faced with a loss that no family should endure.
‘They’re faced with a loss no family should have to endure’