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Baby unit without fire certificate
- Health officials: newborn deaths spurred hasty opening

Malda, Dec. 16: The special care unit for newborns at the Malda district hospital was opened today by minister Sabitri Mitra, though she was aware that it did not have the mandatory fire safety certificate.

Women and child welfare minister Mitra said she was would ask the fire services department to issue the certificate at the earliest while the district health officials said applications had been made for an inspection, a claim denied by the zonal fire officials in Siliguri.

The launch of the 12-bed Sick Newborn Care Unit comes a day after an autoclave at the SNCU burst scalding a nurse and a technician. The SNCU opened today without the autoclave being repaired or replaced. An autoclave is used to sterilise medical equipment and labware under high steam and pressure.

Asked why the SNCU had been opened without any inspection by the fire department, hospital superintendent Himadri Kumar Anri pleaded helplessness.

“We had applied to the zonal fire services office in Siliguri on November 10 and again on December 10. We have also installed five fire extinguishers at the SNCU,” Anri said.

Asked what arrangements were in place in case a fire broke out, the superintendent said: “The fire extinguishers are there. We have written to the fire services department to train the hospital staff in fire fighting.”

The Malda chief medical officer of health, Swapan Jhariat, said it was necessary to open the SNCU at the earliest because of the spurt in neo-natal deaths at the hospital. “We were under tremendous pressure from our higher-ups to get the facility running. Since November 9, 128 newborns have died and we did not have the modern facilities needed to save them. Last night, four newborns were admitted in a critical condition and they are doing well today at the SNCU,” Jhariat said. He said all four babies weighed between 1kg and 1.2kg and were suffering from respiratory distress. A newborn should weigh at least 2.5kg.

Asked if a fire broke out who would be held responsible, Jhariat said: “We will all have to shoulder the responsibility, we have to look at all the aspects in this case.”

But the deputy director of the fire service department’s north Bengal zone, Udaynarayan Adhikary, said he was yet to receive any applications for safety certificate from the Malda health authorities. “We had not received any letter from Malda. If we had, we would have carried out an inspection at the earliest,” Adhikary said.

Asked about Adhikary’s claim, Jhariat said: “I have nothing to say. We had written to them. In any case, the matter is being pursued by the minister personally.”

Trinamul leader Mitra said she was looking into the issue. “Mamata Banerjee (chief minister) has personally told me to get the SNCU going as soon as it was ready. I am trying my best to get the fire safety norms in place at the earliest,” she said.

The defective autoclave remained in the room adjacent to the SNCU today. The hospital superintendent said the manufacturers had been informed. “We have a heavy-duty autoclave at the hospital and we will be using it till the one in the SNCU is either replaced or repaired,” Anri said. Yesterday, the CMOH had said repairs would be carried out throughout the night if necessary, to get the autoclave started before the inauguration.

Balurghat SNCU

In neighbouring South Dinajpur, the SNCU at the district hospital in Balurghat could not be opened because of shortage of medical staff as well as defective baby warmers.

The chief medical officer of health of South Dinajpur, Asit Kumar Mondal, said nurses trained to man the SNCU were now working in sub-health centres (below the primary health centres) across the district. “There is a placement problem and we will sort it out in a day or two,” Mondal said. Asked whether the facility had a fire safety certificate, the CMOH said they were yet to receive one. “I have convened a meeting to discuss the safety aspects tomorrow.”

Five of the 12 baby warmers installed at the SNCU have defects. Hospital superintendent Buddhadeb Mondal said: “A team of technicians from the manufacturers in Chennai will be arriving here shortly. We were supposed to open the SNCU today, but we have only one out of the four doctors required and the nurses are yet to be deputed,” the hospital superintendent said.