Ailing Health Ministry needs resuscitation

Last week, we witnessed the shocking and tragic incident of a schoolgirl in Matara dying after being administered the Rubella vaccine. The Ministry of Health is now busy conducting inquiries into the incident and apportioning blame with the help of foreign experts, no less.

Nevertheless, this sorry episode in which an innocent child had to pay with her life, joins a long list of scandals with which the Ministry has been linked.

We recall that in mid-2005, three patients died following an outbreak of meningitis in mothers who had spinal anaesthesia for caesarean surgery. In that incident syringes used at government hospitals were found to be contaminated with fungi because they were stored in Ministry warehouses in less than satisfactory conditions.

Last year, the National Blood Centre –more popularly known as the ‘Blood Bank’- was at the centre of a controversy, when it was alleged that expired apheresis kits were used on donors thereby putting them at risk. The inquiry into that episode has not yet reached a definite conclusion.

The latest incident where Peshala Hansani, a schoolgirl at S. Thomas’ Girls’ High School in Matara died after the Rubella vaccine was given to her, will have extremely significant implications.

Already, following the wide and adverse publicity that the girl’s death generated, there is a fear psychosis regarding immunisation. It will now take a lot of effort to convince parents to consent to their children being immunised by the state agencies.
This is indeed a pity because Sri Lanka proudly boasts of an efficient healthcare system. It is supposed to be one of the best among countries of comparable economic status. Contributing significantly to that standing is its primary healthcare network in which immunisation is a key cornerstone.

With more and more parents now fighting shy to immunise their children through the state run immunisation programme - as is wont to happen after this scandal - the possibility of epidemics looms large, and that is a crisis that the ministry and the country can ill afford at this juncture.

Moreover, as it always emerges after a scandal, there are allegations of corruption. And, even by the rather liberal standards used to evaluate corruption in government institutions, the Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition is widely acknowledged to be a den of thieves.


Unfortunately, the honourable Minister has not been effective enough in dealing with such allegations. As scandal upon scandal piles up at ‘Suwasiripaya’, Minister de Silva is at his loquacious best, assuring all and sundry that all is well, and generally finding convenient scapegoats to take the blame.

The Minister has held this particular portfolio for most part of the past twelve years. Therefore, by now he should have mastered the nuances of administering a ministry as vital as this. What we see however is evidence to the contrary.

Almost all the tiers in the medical and paramedical professions are up in arms against the ministry, with a plethora of grievances. That has resulted in a series of strikes, sick note campaigns, and other assorted work stoppages that have crippled health services from time to time.

We are not for a moment suggesting that the grievances and demands of all the trade unions which work within the ministry are just and reasonable. Sometimes, they are not, and there have been many instances where strikes have been launched for trivial reasons. However, we have to take issue with the ministry for the manner in which these demands are countered.


A case in point is how the ministry deals with the Government Medical Officers’ Association, arguably the most powerful trade union in the country. The Minister however takes every available opportunity to take swipes at the medical professionals in this union in public - and that is hardly a confidence building exercise.

In another instance, the Minister had persistently refused to authorise leave to a much respected doctor in a highly specialised field. The doctor was about to leave the country, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa with admirable foresight intervened to retain the services of this doctor for the benefit of the nation.

And it is not only the Minister who needs a makeover - the ministry’s bureaucracy is also notorious for its inefficiency and lack of integrity. In fact, the reasons for most of the recent scandals that have rocked the ministry could be attributed to errors of omission and commission by ministry bureaucrats because all the ministry’s faults cannot be dumped at the doorstep of the Minister alone.

What all this suggests is that the Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition is not in the best of health, and is in fact in need of urgent resuscitation. Obviously, all is not well within this sick giant, and only an infusion of an urgent remedy will rectify the many crises simmering at ‘Suwasiripaya’.

In most other countries, deaths such as Peshala Hansani’s would have brought about the resignation of the Health Minister. This being Sri Lanka, we know that we deal with scandals and crises in a different way.

Yet, if this latest incident can contribute in any way towards reforming the mess that constitutes the Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition, then little Peshala Hansani’s death would not be entirely in vain.