Editor's Viewpoint: Poots has more explaining to do
Health Minister Edwin Poots is to be commended for making a statement to the Assembly on the outbreak of Pseudomonas which has killed four babies in Northern Ireland hospitals in recent weeks.
His aim was to clarify what is being done to tackle and contain the problem and to reassure parents that the source of infection in the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital where three of the deaths occurred has now been identified. Parents obviously have been very concerned, especially since it has been confirmed the infection has been discovered in Altnagelvin and Craigavon hospitals as well as the Belfast facility.
However - as is often the case - Mr Poots' comments to the Assembly have raised more questions. He revealed that a letter was circulated to health trusts throughout the province after the initial outbreak of Pseudomonas at Altnagelvin Hospital giving a general warning that the infection had been discovered in the province but incredibly did not mention Altnagelvin or that a baby had died from the infection.
Health trusts routinely receive warnings about all kinds of matters including potential outbreaks of infection or the need for increased hygiene. The letter circulated just before Christmas would have rung more alarm bells had it mentioned the fatality. It is claimed that the Belfast Trust which manages the Royal Jubilee Maternity unit performed all the safety checks required of it and this is something which officials at the Department of Health undoubtedly will want to test in the coming weeks.
Yet many parents will wonder if more could have been done to prevent the deaths at the Royal. That is not to take away in any form from the efforts of staff subsequent to the deaths to safeguard the babies and to trace the source of infection. However was the alert given to them after the Altnagelvin outbreak of sufficient gravity? From today's perspective it seems that failure to mention the initial death from Pseudomonas was an error.
There was a significant time gap between the initial death at Altnagelvin and the subsequent deaths at the Royal. Could the source of infection been traced earlier and could the infection of at least some of the babies been prevented? How did it get into the pipes at what is a new facility at the Royal? Those are the questions that have emerged and doubts will continue until more details are made known. It is accepted infections are impossible to prevent totally but that means every incident should be reported fully and acted upon swiftly. The authorities now appear to be on top of the problem and that will be some reassurance. However those who have suffered the loss of their babies will rightly demand a fuller explanation of the chain of events and the authorities reaction to them. Mr Poots can confidently expect some more testing times ahead.