The number of suspected dengue-related deaths now stands at eight, three of which have been confirmed, according to Health Minister, Dr Christopher Tufton.
The minister gave the revised number on Tuesday as he engaged in verbal sparring with Opposition Spokesman on Health, Dr Dayton Campbell, in the House of Representatives on the management of the mosquito-borne disease across the island.
At a press conference on January 3 to announce that the country was in the midst of a dengue outbreak, Tufton said there were seven suspected deaths relating to the disease.
With 830 presumed or suspected cases reported, 23 of which have been confirmed so far, Tufton said there was likely to be an increase in the number of cases throughout January, before the numbers taper off by March.
The outbreak was declared after 123 cases were reported across the island in December, surpassing the epidemic threshold of 96 for that month. The health minister noted on Tuesday that December was the only month in 2018 that surpassed the threshold for an outbreak to be declared.
Unimpressed, Dr Campbell insisted that Tufton should have been more proactive ahead of declaring an outbreak, as this could have helped to mitigate the challenging situation.
Campbell charged that the minister waited until the infectious disease ward at the Bustamante Hospital for Children was overflowing with dengue patients who had to be relocated elsewhere. The hospital also reportedly recorded deaths from dengue.
Campbell said in May last year, Tufton was presented with information when the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) suggested that the region should brace for a dengue outbreak.
“In my mind, the first thing that you would want to consider is how many cases did we have in the previous year,” said Campbell, who noted that up to November 12 last year, the country had seen 412 suspected cases of dengue, in compared to 177 cases in 2016, an increase of 130 per cent. He said further, that on December 14 when the Health Ministry sought to reassure the country that there was nothing no basis for panic about dengue across the island, there were 570 suspected cases on record.
“I am not being detained by the definition of outbreak, (but) if it’s not an outbreak, it certainly is a definition of a crisis,” Campbell declared, chiding Tufton for waiting until the threshold of 96 was reached in December before declaring an outbreak.
Said Campbell: “If your minister of health is warned that there’s going to be a dengue outbreak; that there’s a 300 per cent increase in the number of (suspected) cases; that persons have died and your children’s hospital is overflowing and you have to be making arrangements to move them elsewhere; are you satisfied with your minister not doing everything that is possible, taking the proactive approach to prevent the outbreak, as opposed to trying to contain it?” Campbell asked.
He added that it was “nonsensical to sit and wait… before you implement these measures”. The measures he referenced, as announced by Tufton, included the allocation of $250 million to the response programme and the recruitment of an additional 500 vector control workers.
On Tuesday, Campbell also suggested that with more than 2,600 suspected cases of dengue in 2016, the health minister may have hidden a dengue outbreak from the country.
For his part, Tufton said he was not prepared to dispute the numbers or the process that is involved in arriving at the numbers in relation to the suspected dengue cases.
Regarding the issue of overcrowding at Bustamante Hospital for Children, the minister pointed to the “longstanding issue” in the country’s hospitals. He said the children’s hospital normally sees overcrowding during the flu season, and this usually means patients have to be moved around.
Campbell had also argued that the country’s ability to test for dengue was woefully inadequate, and as such, the actual number of cases could be higher.
In response, Tufton said the blood inventory at the National Blood Transfusion Services has improved as at January 3, and the laboratory capacity enhanced to expedite testing for dengue, through support from CARPHA and the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI).
He also said the ministry was in the process of finalising framework agreements with four private laboratories to enhance testing capacity.
Additionally, the minister said clinical staff have been re-sensitised about the management of dengue; emergency departments at hospitals have been bolstered by increased clinical and administrative staff; and sensitisation of all doctors, both private and public, has been conducted.
“The ministry is also increasing available hospital beds by providing the support to open unused wards at St Joseph’s and National Chest hospitals, and we now have extended opening hours at various health centres in anticipation of increased demand on the system,” Tufton said.
He said that an extended public education campaign – launched in May with the observation of Mosquito Awareness Week – has also commenced, and will continue in the coming weeks.
Tufton also said the Health Ministry is collaborating with the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development in terms of the removal of domestic waste from communities.
“We had a meeting with the minister of finance and the public service, with representatives from the National Solid Waste Management Authority as part of the co-ordinated approach to deal with (mosquito) breeding sites,” Tufton said.