Close to 200 children have died of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) in Muzaffarpur and its neighbouring areas in Bihar in the last couple of weeks. The figure is outrageous. What is shocking is that most deaths could have been averted. The apathy of the government, even as deaths are reported daily, is even more despicable. One can sum up the unconcern and indifference of the authorities in the way the Bihar Health Minister enquired about the score of India in the World Cup cricket match which was being played out while he was addressing a press conference on the devastating disease in his very State.
The disease is nothing new to Bihar. It has been recurring in the last several years. It has claimed innumerable lives during this decade. Experts from India and abroad have submitted reports on the causes and remedial measures to contain the menace. Consumption of litchi, a fruit available in plenty during this season, is considered to be one of the reasons that trigger the disease. But studies have made it clear that eating the fruit itself is not harmful, but it becomes fatal only when it is taken by undernourished children. Hence it is baffling that Ministers and medical authorities are parroting what they had been saying year after year: “We are looking into the causes of the disease.”
As the disease affects children who are suffering from malnutrition, the best remedial measure is to have special nutrition programmes in AES-prone areas. But the government has failed to provide the means required for feeding the malnourished children. It is another matter that the government, under various programmes, spends on paper crores of rupees for providing nutritious food to the children. An observation made by an expert in this field nails many lies: Ensuring that children had a meal at night would have saved many lives.
Several reports have come out depicting how ill-equipped the health facilities in Muzaffarpur, the epicenter of the disease and deaths, are to deal with the situation. It has been found that almost all Primary Health Centres in the district – 103 in all – do not have the basic facility to deal with the disease. They do not have even the facility to monitor the blood sugar, a basic requirement to diagnose the disease. Patients have to be rushed to Sri Krishna Medical Collage and Hospital in Muzaffarpur where too the conditions are not conducive to deal with the situation. Hence one can only take with a pinch of salt the government’s assurance in the Supreme Court – which is hearing a case in this regard – that it is taking all precautions to deal with the situation.
One can safely say that though AES is the immediate cause of children dying in droves, the real villain is the apathetic administration. Cause of the disease is known; remedial measures are available; steps to tackle the disease are feasible. Still patients are dying non-stop. There is only one plausible explanation for this. The victims are from the margins; they are the voiceless people; they are without the wherewithal to fight the apathetic administration; and they do not matter till the next round of elections are held. In fact, deaths of these hapless little ones don’t count much for the authorities, though the Prime Minister may admit in Parliament that it is a matter of shame for the nation.
(Published on 01th July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 27)