By Nicolas Négoce
Eleven newborn babies have died in a fire at the maternity unit of a hospital in the western city of Tivaouane in Senegal.
The fire was caused by a short circuit, said the city’s mayor, Demba Diop Sy. Three babies were rescued, he added.
Senegal’s Health Minister Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr has since been fired.
The tragedy has set off a wave of grief and outrage throughout Senegal over the state of disrepair at some of the country’s health-care facilities.
Families rushed to the Mame Abdou Aziz Sy Dabakh Hospital to find out if their babies had survived. Some could be seen sitting outside in tears with their heads in their hands, overcome with the news that their babies were among the dead.
“We are devastated,” one young man, who only gave his name as Abdou said
“My sister-in-law gave birth last month but then she died. The baby was born seven months into the pregnancy, so he had to be treated and he is now one of the victims of this fire,” he said.
Moustapha Cissé told Reuters news agency that his three-week-old nephew, Mohamed, was among the dead.
His mother Ramata Gueye also died after childbirth. She and her husband, El Hadj Gueye, had been trying for a baby for seven years and Mohamed was their only child.
“It is heart-breaking to see him lose his wife and now his child,” said Mr Cissé. “I can’t even look him in the eyes.”
“Is it God’s plan or is it just that Senegal’s hospitals are failing? We need to put this question to the government,” he added.
The hospital had been newly inaugurated, according to AFP, citing local media reports.
President Macky Sall has declared three days of national mourning. “To their mothers and their families, I express my deepest sympathy,” he wrote in a tweet.
“I heard the news of the fire last night, but I did not tell my daughter. I waited until the morning to inform her,” said Ndeye Absa Gueye, who later found out her grandchild was among the dead.
“This hurts all of Senegal,” Tivaouane resident Ousmane Kane told Reuters.
Prior to his dismissal, Health Minister Mr Sarr said: “This situation is very unfortunate and extremely painful.”
He was attending a World Health Organization meeting in Geneva at the time, where he said an investigation was under way and he would be cutting his trip short to return to Senegal immediately.
Many observers say that while Senegal has one of the best health systems in the region, it has been beset by staffing, infrastructure, equipment, and funding problems.
There are also complaints about the standard of healthcare in urban areas like this, and what people have access to in rural areas.
But those questions are for another day. Relatives arriving here at the hospital wanted to know what happened to their children – and why.
Opposition MP Mamadou Lamine Diallo criticised the government, tweeting: “More babies burned in a public hospital… This is unacceptable”.
Rights group Amnesty International has urged the government to create an “independent commission of inquiry to determine responsibility and punish the culprits, no matter the level they are at in the state apparatus,” country director Seydi Gassama said in a tweet.
Amnesty called for all of Senegal’s neo-natal wards to be inspected after a similar incident occurred in the northern town of Linguère last year.
Four newborn babies were killed there after a fire broke out at a hospital’s maternity ward. At the time, the mayor said there was an electrical fault in the air conditioning unit of the maternity ward.
Earlier this month, the authorities discovered that a baby that had been declared dead by a nurse’s aide was still alive in a morgue. The infant later died.
Wednesday’s tragedy also follows a national outcry over the death of a woman in labour, Astou Sokhna, who died while reportedly begging for a Caesarean during her 20-hour labour ordeal. Her unborn child also died.
For now, the government’s top priority will be finding a way to stop disasters like this happening again.