Why the Encephalitis Deaths Won’t Stop

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Rain of Death The only speciality hospital in the region faces shortage of doctors
Rain of Death The only Speciality hospital in the region faces shortage of doctors

MONSOON IN Gorakhpur seldom brings cheer. For the past 30 years, rains in the region are synonymous with children dying of encephalitis. 2012 witnessed 557 encephalitis deaths. Six months since then very little progress has been made in the fight against this deadly disease.

Encephalitis, which has claimed 50,000 lives in Gorakhpur in the last 30 years, is now an annual occurrence that the locals call ‘monsoon of death’, as the most number of deaths occur in the monsoon months between July and October.

After the epidemic in 2012, which saw the maximum fatalities in the last five years, the Centre took up the fight against the disease in 60 districts across five states — Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. Uttar Pradesh remaining on the top in the mortality rate. Assam and Bihar registered 250 deaths each due to encephalitis last year. “Under this action plan, which commenced in November 2012, Rs 4,000 crore has been allocated by a group of ministries to fight the disease,” says Ansu Prakash, a joint secretary in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Five months since the work commenced, the action plan has drawn flak from several quarters. Incidentally, the same ministries had allocated Rs 3,400 crore in 2011 to fight the disease, but it was never disbursed.

“This is a game of showing goodwill gestures,” says Dr RN Singh, the leader of the Encephalitis Eradication Movement. “After every year’s spell of death, both the Centre and the state announce such programmes that seldom bear any fruit,” he adds. Indeed, the track record of the Central and state governments in handling the encephalitis epidemic makes one sceptical about the outcome of the ongoing programme.

This annual allocation of funds fails to take into account the fact that in the last three years, 20 percent of the deaths occurred due to nonavailability of immunoglobulin — a drug that cures encephalitis. “In spite of the Director General of Medical Education and Training having approved this drug, it couldn’t be acquired because each dose costs more than 1 lakh,” says Dr KP Kushwaha, the principal of Baba Raghav Das Medical College (BRDMC) in Gorakhpur, the only hospital in Uttar Pradesh that treats encephalitis patients from 19 districts. At times, the hospital also receives patients from Bihar, Assam and even Nepal. The hospital has seen over 50,000 deaths in the last 30 years.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in the 2013 budget announced 5 crore for expanding the encephalitis ward at the hospital. But the hospital faces an acute shortage of doctors. Last year the encephalitis ward at BRDMC was run entirely by students from other medical colleges across the state. “For many years now, we have been asking for more doctors but our demand hasn’t been met,” says Dr Kushwaha.

THE BIGGEST threat that looms across this district has so far been ignored. “Since the new entero-viral type of encephalitis, which has taken over the mantle of the killer from the Japanese Encephalitis, is a disease that spreads through water, the need of the hour are hand pumps that fetch water from deep beneath the ground as opposed to the shallow pumps,” says Dr Singh. But little has been done so far to implement the idea. “We have sent out teams to do a survey on the ground about the requirement of the deeper hand pumps. We are yet to get the reports though,” informs D Rajasekhar, Deputy Adviser (water quality) in the Union Ministry of Water and Sanitation. The water ministry has so far spent 130 crore on surveying ground water resources in the district.

If things do not pick up pace, the monsoon in 2013 will bring another spell of deaths, only to be followed by more funds and promises, a vicious cycle for the hapless victims across the state.

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