The fire broke out around 4 a.m. in El Oued, a town roughly 360 miles from Algeria’s capital, Algiers, the AP reported. Emergency responders rushed to the scene — too late to save the eight newborns, though 11 other infants, along with 37 mothers and 28 hospital workers, were successfully evacuated from the area, authorities said.
As firefighters worked to get the blaze under control, families of the victims gathered outside the Al-Um Bashir bin Nasser Hospital to demand a government investigation, according to CNN.
The state’s health minister, Mohamed Miraoui, said on television that the fire may have been started by a defective mosquito repellent device and vowed the government will launch an “urgent investigation” to determine the exact cause, according to the AP.
Agence France-Presse reported it was the second fire at the hospital in the past 16 months; “a fire in May last year caused significant damage but no casualties,” AFP reported.
The deadly fire comes as protests in Algeria stretch into their seventh month. At the “root of citizen anger is … the failure of the country’s governing system to provide for the basic needs of Algerians,” a Washington Post-hosted analysis blog, The Monkey Cage, has written.
Algeria established a national health-care system in 1975, making “hospitalization, medicines and outpatient care” free to all citizens, according to information posted by the U.S. Library of Congress.
The country’s under-5 infant mortality rate is 24 per 1,000 live births, according to UNICEF. By comparison, UNICEF estimates the same statistic in the United States at 6.6 per 1,000 live births.