Encephalitis outbreak claims more lives in India

The death toll from an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis in northern India rose to 664 on Monday with 18 more deaths as doctors appealed for more ventilators to save the lives of young patients.

As many as 67 new cases were admitted to hospitals overnight, said Vijay Shankar Nigam, spokesperson for the Communicable Diseases Control Room of northern Uttar Pradesh state.

“The maximum deaths are from Gorakhpur,” Nigam said, referring to the worst-hit district 250km south-east of the state capital, Lucknow.

Power supplies in the district have also been scaled back to 15 hours daily starting on Monday, from 18 hours earlier, Press Trust of India reported. Power shortages are common across northern India because of poor supplies and theft.

On Sunday night, doctors at Lucknow’s King George Medical College hospital sought help from former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as he visited the almost 100-year-old hospital.

As Vajpayee toured the encephalitis ward, doctors asked for funds to buy ventilators for children lying in comas and unable to breathe without assistance.

The ward had been freshly painted and the bed linen newly washed in honour of his visit, but the facelift was unable to mask the scarcity of necessary medical equipment to cope with victims of the mosquito-borne disease.

“Without ventilators, we won’t be able to able to save lives of many children,” hospital chief superintendent Ramakant told Vajpayee, who now represents Lucknow in Parliament.

“We have ventilators, but these are not enough to save the lives of so many children,” said Ramakant, who uses only one name.

In the past 24 hours, at least 42 children, between the ages of three and 12, have been admitted to the paediatrics ward, which is serving as the hospital’s encephalitis ward.

“Only children suffering from encephalitis are admitted in this ward,” said Anurag Yadav, an attending paediatrician.

On Sunday, a state government spokesperson said more than 2 400 patients were lying in hospitals, often two to a bed, across Uttar Pradesh. The disease has spread to 25 of the 70 districts of the state.

Uttar Pradesh is the poorest and most populous state in the country, with 180-million people.
Health facilities in the state, which borders Nepal, are rudimentary.

Doctors have been raising the alarm about a severe shortage of life-saving medicines, oxygen and even medical staff. Health workers have also blamed the lack of preventive action such as widespread vaccination to halt the spread of the disease, which is endemic to the region.

“We desperately need another intensive-care unit but the medical infrastructure in Uttar Pradesh is in complete disarray,” said AK Rathi, Gorakhpur district’s chief paediatrician, on Sunday.

Japanese encephalitis first surfaced in Uttar Pradesh in 1978, killing 721. In 1980, 496 died from the disease. Casualties reached a record 1 228 in 1988. More than 4 000 people have died in the state since the disease first hit.

The disease, which is transmitted from pigs to humans via mosquitoes, strikes during the annual monsoon rains from June to September.—Sapa-AFP

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