The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hospital fire kills 11 infants in Senegal as outrage builds over neglect

Kaba, mother of a 10-day-old baby, outside the hospital that burned in Tivaouane, Senegal. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

DAKAR, Senegal — At least 11 newborn babies have died after a fire blazed through a public hospital’s neonatal unit in Senegal, the president of the West African nation said Thursday.

The flames tore through Abdou Aziz Sy Dabakh Hospital in the city of Tivaouane, about 60 miles northeast of the capital, Dakar, sparking outrage over disrepair at some of the country’s health-care facilities.

One family was already grieving when they got the call. Adama Diagne, 55, said her daughter-in-law died three weeks ago during childbirth — the infant, her grandson, lost his life in the blaze.

His name was Mouhamed.

“We only had time to baptize him,” Diagne said, choking up.

A politician and public works engineer, Cheikh Bamba Dièye, called for a thorough review of Senegal’s medical centers, saying he was “appalled by the horrific and unacceptable death” following a “recurrence of tragedies.”

Four newborns were killed last year in a fire at a maternity ward in the northern town of Linguère. At the time, the mayor blamed an air conditioning malfunction.

Amnesty International’s Senegal director, Seydi Gassama, demanded action from the nation’s leaders Wednesday, saying this kind of accident had become a pattern.

“We sympathize with the pain of the bereaved families,” he said, “and urge the government to set up an independent commission of inquiry to locate those responsible and punish the culprits.”

Yacine Thiobane, a social worker in Tivaouane, said she was called to the hospital just before midnight Wednesday to comfort families. She found a heart-wrenching scene: People gathered outside. Sobbing mothers. Firefighters removing the bodies.

“The babies were burned to death,” Thiobane said. “The reality is, the system is sick and needs reform.”

Health officials in Senegal said they were launching an investigation. Emergency responders remained at the wreckage Thursday morning. An electrical short circuit probably ignited the fire, officials said on television.

“To their mothers and their families, I express my deepest sympathy,” Senegalese President Macky Sall tweeted.

Maternity care in Senegal was already under scrutiny following the recent death of a woman in labor who asked for and was denied a Caesarean section. Her name, Astou Sokha, has become a rallying cry for protesters.

The hospital’s director was fired after the outcry, and three midwives were found guilty of not helping someone in danger.

After tragedies like this, people lose trust in the public health system, said Nour Elhouda Nsiri, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Dakar.

That could mean more preventable deaths in Senegal, where the maternal mortality rate is already far higher than the global average.

“It is going to stay in their minds: If this could happen to one person, it could happen to them,” Nsiri said. “Then more women stay home or come to the hospital when it is too late.”

Doctors have long sounded the alarm about faulty equipment and shaky upkeep in public facilities, she said. An operating room caught fire three years ago while one of her colleagues was performing a surgery.

“Super-old everything,” she said. “Not maintained. Risky for personnel and patients. Nobody does anything about it until an incident like this happens.”