17 days after encephalitis outbreak, Nitish visits AES-hit Muzaffarpur, faces protests; orders slew of measures to contain damage

Seventeen days after the outbreak of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome in Bihar, which is now threatening to assume the shape of a calamity, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar finally visited Muzaffarpur district, where over 100 children have succumbed to the disease. The official figures peg the number of lives lost at 108, however, local media reports estimate that as many as 125 children have been killed in the current bout of the epidemic.

Accompanied by his deputy Sushil Kumar Modi, Nitish arrived at the Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH) in the district to take stock of the situation. However, the chief minister had to face angry family members of the children who booed at him and raised slogans like, "Nitish Kumar go back," News18 reported.

The people's anger spilled over to the street after alleged inaction of the authorities in face of the crisis-like situation.

 17 days after encephalitis outbreak, Nitish visits AES-hit Muzaffarpur, faces protests; orders slew of measures to contain damage

File image of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Reuters

Earlier, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan visited the hospital to take stock of the situation. His cavalcade too was stopped by protesters while he was returning from Muzaffarpur to Patna and black flags were waved at him. The police then resorted to mild baton charge to disperse the crowd.

Nitish, who had been away in New Delhi since Saturday, returned to the state capital Monday evening and held an emergency review meeting on the Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) situation with officials. He rushed to the SKMCH hospital in Muzaffarpur, where more than 300 children have been admitted with complaints of AES since 1 June. Close to 90 of them have died.

After the meeting, the government swung into action, declaring it would bear the expense for treatment of those found with the syndrome even if the treatment took place at private hospitals.

Instructions were also issued for equipping primary health centres with necessary facilities so that children with symptoms of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome in remote areas could be provided with medical attention closer home since, in several cases, the time involved in travelling to the district headquarters and seeking admission to hospitals had led to worsening of the condition of patients.

Bihar chief secretary Deepak Kumar said, "Awareness is being created that children shouldn't sleep on an empty stomach and should be immediately brought to hospital if they fall sick. "We've given directions that all ASHA workers, ANMs and anganwadi workers should distribute ORS in all households and educate the families about its importance.

Kumar pointed out that the main reason of deaths is that patients reach hospitals late. "It's been reiterated that patients won't have to bear any expense in coming to hospitals. Their fare will be reimbursed, they'll be given Rs 400 at flat rate."

Meanwhile, the relatives of the children languishing at state-run hospitals were inconsolable. Speaking to journalists, they pointed out to a water tanker. "This is today's development. Things are being spruced up so that it makes a favourable impression on the chief minister. Had the chief minister visited earlier, it would have made the concerned people pull up their socks and many lives could have been saved," one of them said.

The state authorities have been unable to zero down on the root cause of the disease or how it spreads. There have been some vague reports blaming the outbreak on anything from the litchi (also spelt lychee) fruit to the heat wave conditions prevailing in the state.

Litchi appeared to be a likely culprit as the outbreaks of the disease have happened annually during summer months in Muzaffarpur and neighbouring districts since 1995, coinciding with the litchi season. Similar outbreaks of neurological illness have been observed in litchi-growing regions of Bangladesh and Vietnam as well. But local doctors blame the unabated heat conditions in the state.

Chief Secretary Deepak Kumar said no clear cause of deaths could be ascertained so far and indicated that one of the reasons could be that no rainfall, even pre-monsoon rain, occurred in the district this year. The chief secretary said the government had also decided to send a team to each household where children died due to suspected AES cases, in order to find out their social and economic background, The purpose, he said, was to find out whether the deaths had any link with the background of the deceased families.

The chief secretary, however, claimed that the percentage of deaths vis-a-vis the number of admissions of children in hospitals had declined to 26 percent this year, which he said was 35-36 percent earlier. He added that the India Meteorological Department had said the heat wave conditions would continue for the next two days in various parts of the state. The department has forecast rainfall and thunderstorm on Wednesday in parts of the state.

With inputs from PTI

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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2019 07:30:36 IST