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
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
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
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
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.