HEALTH minister Stephen Mallinga yesterday ordered the arrest of a health centre administrator and seven medics in Mpigi district, where nine people died recently reportedly due to poisonous alcohol.
Mallinga was furious after he found Butoolo Health Centre III locked during the day with no health worker on duty, something he said was illegal.
The minister, who was on an impromptu tour of Kammengo sub-county where the deaths have occurred, arrived at the health centre at 11:40am with a team from the World Health Organisation, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards and the Criminal Investigations Directorate.
After 40 minutes, the in-charge of the centre, clinical officer Elijah Nsobya, arrived smiling in a Corolla car following a tip-off by residents.
His smile, however, was short-lived as the irate Mallinga ordered a CID officer to handcuff him immediately.
â€œThis is total negligence of duty,â€ Mallinga said. â€œPeople are dying. How can you close the only health centre where they would get medication?â€
To Mallingaâ€™s amusement, the terrified Nsobya replied that he returned from a witchdoctor in Kampala where he had taken his sick mother.
Mallinga said a health Centre III was supposed to operate 24 hours a day since it runs a maternity wing.
The district deputy chairperson, Frank Kawooya, and health official Dr. Godfrey Kaggwa later apologised and pleaded with Mallinga to pardon Nsobya and the seven nurses and midwives.
The minister, however, directed the district leaders to write a report to the ministry in two weeks. He also said the Government should re-centralise all health centres, saying the districts â€œhave failed to manage them.â€
Nine people have been confirmed dead in Mpigi in the last two weeks, up from the eight reported on Wednesday.
A number of survivors yesterday testified having taken sachets of waragi days before they fell sick.
â€œMy eyes started blurring on Friday. On the nights of Wednesday and Thursday, I had been at Nakaluleâ€™s bar where I drank three sachets of VIVA Waragi,â€ said Matiya Ssekamwa, 55, who has become blind.
Mallinga asked the district leaders to stop people drinking waragi packed in small sachets as it is suspected to contain the toxic methanol.
Dozens of sachets of several brands of waragi sold in the area were collected for further examination. Besides VIVA, the brands included Princes Vodka, Planet Vodka, African Gin, Rwenzori Gin, Empire waragi, and 3R Zed.
If it is proved that any of them contains methanol, Mallinga said, the manufacturers will be penalised for causing death.
Meanwhile, a local NGO at the helm of the fight against alcohol abuse among the youth yesterday demanded that the Government bans all local liquors packaged in sachets.
Addressing a press briefing yesterday, the director of the Uganda Youth Development Link, Rogers Kasirye, said the ban must target the manufacturing and selling of the liquors, and should only be lifted after the authorities are satisfied that there is conformity to standards by the various distillers.
He blamed the current tragedy, that has so far claimed more than 20 lives countrywide, on the absence of a ministry to enforce the existing regulations on alcohol.
He also attributed it to cheap and easy packaging of liquors in sachets.
Both factors, he said, had led to the proliferation of distillers in the country, making liquors cheap and easily available, even to children.
His programme manager, Rogers Mutaawe, called for the enforcement of the existing laws on alcohol.
Among other measures, the NGO called for the expansion of the inquiry committee at the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, which they called inept and failing to take action on the wrongdoers.
The alcohol problem, Mutaawa argued, is beyond the means of the Ministry of Health. â€œIt necessitates the involvement of other ministries such as local government, justice, trade and commerce.â€ He added that the Government should step up its surveillance to include local councils.
Minister furious over closed health centre