Mexicans ask why their babies died

26 dead in a month at hospital in Chiapas

The Associated Press

Mexican police exhume the bodies of infants at the cemetery in Comitan in the state of Chiapas. Twenty-six infant deaths at Comitan's hospital were reported in December.

By Traci Carl

COMITAN, Mexico - Alberto Perez was devastated when his baby boy died at Comitan's hospital. He soon found out he was not alone.

"Your baby died, too?" someone in the waiting room asked."Did you hear about the twins?" another parent piped in.

Before long, 13 families were united in grief and anger over the deaths of infants at the small hospital. And when they went as a group to the prosecutor's office to see about filing charges, they found 12 more families doing the same.

Inadequate health care has long been a fact of life in the neediest regions of Mexico and other developing countries, a condition stoically accepted by the poor. But the anger that boiled over in Comitan has touched a nerve in Mexico, setting off a national media furor, an official investigation and demands for better care across the country.

Health officials say the 26 infant deaths in December were twice the usual number for the hospital in this southern town in Chiapas. Officials removed the top two administrators, have exhumed almost all the babies' bodies for tests, and are not ruling out criminal charges.

"We want the truth," Perez said about the death of his son Jose and the others. "We want an explanation that is clear and makes sense."

500 employees, 500,000 patients

A preliminary investigation found no signs of an epidemic or virus - only desperate poverty and a rudimentary health system.

Located 40 miles from the border with Guatemala, Comitan's hospital has fewer than 500 employees while serving nearly half a million people, mostly rural Indians who have to travel hours by foot or bus to get even basic care.

The region is one of Mexico's poorest, and has always suffered from a higher infant mortality rate than the national rate of 3 percent. Residents rely on herbal medicine, midwives and even witchcraft in trying to stay healthy.

The deaths in Comitan have shaken many Mexicans into speaking out.

In the central city of Queretaro, lawmaker Enrique Becerra is denouncing the deaths of 24 babies in October at a maternity hospital there.

Last Tuesday, Indians in the mountain town of Las Margaritas, 25 miles east of Comitan, seized their local clinic and demanded better access to doctors and medicine.

"If a baby is born here, it is born sick," Carmelina Aguilar said hours after she and dozens of others agreed to leave the clinic in return for talks with authorities. "The same thing that happened in Comitan is going to happen here."

For Irma Cruz, it already has.

Parents report negligence by doctors

Nine months into her pregnancy, Cruz went to the clinic in Las Margaritas complaining of sharp pains, but was told to go home. When the contractions didn't stop, she was sent to Comitan, where she gave birth to a girl. The baby died three days later, on Dec. 17.

Sitting in her wooden shack wallpapered with newspapers to keep out the cold, Cruz complained that the hospital staff treated her poorly, serving her breakfast with a cockroach in the food.

Other parents have similar complaints. They said there were no doctors over Christmas, when many of the babies became sick and died. And they said staff members ate Christmas dinner and opened presents in the neonatal unit, next to their children's incubators.

Raul Belmonte, the dismissed hospital director, didn't deny the charges, but said he was powerless to improve the situation.

But he denied the hospital was responsible for the deaths, arguing that a sharp increase in births and infant emergencies was behind the statistical rise.

The hospital blamed many of the deaths on cerebral hemorrhaging and infections. A preliminary investigation found that complications from premature births and poor prenatal care were often the problem.