Deaths in the Cradle


An unprecedented number of toddler deaths in a hospital raises serious concerns about healthcare in the Valley, says Riyaz Wani

Death Valley GB Pant hospital has seen over 380 infant deaths this year
Death Valley: GB Pant hospital has seen over 380 infant deaths this year, Photo: Faisal Khan

ROWS OF beds occupied by children with relatives filling the space in between. Any sign of a doctor or a paramedic sets off a flutter in the crowd, with requests to attend to the bed-ridden babies. This is what a normal day looks like at the GB Pant hospital, Kashmir’s only government run tertiary children’s healthcare institution, where the inside is full of noise, disease, desperation and death. Fear looms large, and expectations make way for an impending sense of doom. The reason: around 380 crib deaths since January this year.

“Every 24 hours, there is a death or two in this hospital,” says Hajira who has come from Shopian in south Kashmir with her two-month-old baby. “I don’t know if I will get my ailing baby out alive.”

Hajira’s fear is not unfounded. Every parent is now scared for his/her child’s life. At the time of writing this, two more children had died in the hospital on 12 May, pushing up the toll. Hajira hugs her baby close to her chest as a wail breaks out in the nearby ward where another baby has succumbed to his illness.

There have been 895 fatalities through 2011 in the hospital and more than 380 since January. The break-up for this year goes like this: January 68; February 66; March 105; April 85 and 40 for until 12 May. Reports of deaths in the local media read like the daily casualty figures in militancy-related violence through the troubled 90s. Each new death comes as a shocking reminder of the deteriorating health scene at the GB Pant and other hospitals in the Valley.

Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has termed the unprecedented toll of the crib deaths as “shameful”. Although Azad’s party, the Congress, is a partner in the National Conference-led Jammu & K government, the health minister has slammed Chief Minister Omar Abdullah for his failure to implement Central health schemes. The Central government, says Azad, has already released Rs 60 crore to the state for building two 200-bed hospitals, one each at Jammu and Srinagar. Azad also said children should get free medicines and diagnostic facilities, besides meals for the attendants for one month during hospitalisation, under a scheme already operational in the country.

The health minister’s cameo created some hope but it has hardly made any difference on the ground. Rattled by continuing deaths, the government ordered a probe headed by Dr Showkat Zargar, head of the Valley’s only tertiary care hospital the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. However, the probe is still far from establishing what caused the deaths on such scale. Dr Zargar was asked to review the functioning of GB Pant in detail and report back to the Cabinet in a week. His report is still pending.

While negligence by doctors has been cited as one of the main reasons, the inadequate infrastructure at the GB Pant has also been highlighted as a reason for crib deaths. The hospital has a sanctioned strength of 170 beds but the occupancy, on an average, remains upwards of 350-400 patients. Besides, patients throng the outpatient Department in countless numbers during the day. The hospital has just 62 doctors and is woefully short of paramedics and support staff. Insofar as the essential equipment is concerned, the hospital has only six ventilators.

The state government has initiated several measures to bring the situation under control. Dr Muneer Masoodi, the former head of Sri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital, Srinagar, has been asked to review the situation. Minister for Medical Education, RS Chib has announced 65 more beds for the hospital. The government has ordered the transfer of many doctors from the hospital. Besides, surplus ventilators from Srinagar’s major government hospitals have been moved to GB pant.

“Give me a little bit of time and I will make a positive difference,” says Dr Masoodi. “I will clean up the system and usher in more discipline. We are also taking steps to address the problems of infrastructure, systems and services.”

Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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