Deadly year for encephalitis feared in India

June 18, 2013 by Biswajeet Banerjee
In this Tuesday, April 2, 2013 photo, Sangita Devi, right, stands near the bed of her son Anup Kumar, 4, who has been in hospital for the last four months receiving treatment for encephalitis in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh state, India. Encephalitis is sweeping through northern India, killing at least 118 children in what officials worry could become the deadliest outbreak in nearly a decade. (AP Photo/Biswajeet Banerjee)

A mosquito-borne disease that preys on the young and malnourished is sweeping across poverty-riven northern India again this monsoon season, with officials worried it could be the deadliest outbreak in nearly a decade.

has already killed at least 118 this year, and authorities fear the could reach about 1,000, said Dr. R.N. Singh of the Encephalitis Eradication Movement, an Indian nonprofit.

While India's efforts against polio and tuberculosis get plenty of attention, the and day laborers of eastern Uttar Pradesh state face an almost-silent emergency, battling a disease that has killed thousands of children over the past eight years.

Many families have taken out crushing loans for treatment. The children who survive often cannot communicate because of . They stare off listlessly, unable to recognize friends they played with just months before. Some are so severely disabled that their impoverished parents are told to abandon them.

Sangita Devi's 4-year-old son Anup Kumar has been in a hospital for four months.

"We have mortgaged our house for our son's treatment. But there is no improvement in his condition. He cannot even stand now," she said.

The disease is predictable and preventable. Every year the monsoon fills the region's parched paddy fields, heralding the arrival of the that spread Japanese encephalitis from pigs to humans, devastating with low immunity. Another strain of the disease—Acute Encephalitis Syndrome—spreads through . Residents use the fields for , contaminating the .

A vaccine has long been available, but the state government—which spent tens of millions of dollars building monuments to its last top politician—has failed to muster the sustained political will to focus on the communities hardest hit by the illness.

The disease killed more than 1,500 children in 2005, the worst recent year,

Shocked by the deaths, Uttar Pradesh's highest court in 2006 asked the state and federal governments to declare encephalitis a national health emergency. "A concrete action plan must be drawn," it said.

In this Tuesday, April 2, 2013 photo, an Indian child in a pink shirt with a white bandage on her face undergoes treatment for encephalitis at a hospital in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh state, India. Encephalitis is sweeping through northern India, killing at least 118 children in what officials worry could become the deadliest outbreak in nearly a decade. While India's efforts against polio and tuberculosis get plenty of attention, the poor farmers and day laborers of eastern Uttar Pradesh state face an almost-silent health emergency, battling a disease that has killed thousands of children over the past eight years. (AP Photo/Biswajeet Banerjee)

That year the government started vaccinating children against Japanese encephalitis. The government vowed to immunize every child in the worst-affected areas and to launch a massive drive to improve sanitation. For a couple of years, the numbers dropped. In 2006, the disease killed 431 children.

But the crowded hospital wards of the tiny town of Gorakhpur reflect how the immunization drive has fizzled out. Last year, more than 700 children died.

Amid the cloying smells of ether and disinfectant, 7-year-old Amit jostled his mother. His words were slurred and, every time he tried to break free of her grip, he fell to the floor. She kissed his dry and dirty cheek.

"He cannot stand on his own any more. He cannot speak. Cannot say whether he wants food or water. He has no control over his bladder," said his mother, Kunti, as she held him close. Like many poor Indians they use one name.

Her husband, a laborer on a construction site in neighboring Bihar state, earns about 180 rupees, or $3, a day. He had to borrow $850 from a money lender to pay for his son's treatment, and had to sell his only cow.

The family is like hundreds of others in this area. They have sold their tiny fields, their cattle and their bits of family jewelry. They have buried themselves under loans they may never be able to repay. They have done all this to give their children some hope of a normal life.

Health experts say the government has made repeated mistakes in the fight against encephalitis. Most of the 7.5 million children vaccinated between 2006 and 2010 were given only a single dose of a two-dose vaccine, said Singh, of the Encephalitis Eradication Movement.

"Who is responsible for the children who died between 2006 and 2010?" Singh asked.

In 2010 the vaccination drive suddenly stopped because funds dried up. The sanitation drive never fully started.

To make matters worse, in the 23 worst-affected districts in the state, only one hospital—the Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur—is equipped to deal with the hundreds of sick children. They fill its 108-bed encephalitis ward.

"By the time they reach here, it's too late," said Dr. K.P. Kushwaha, who heads the hospital.

According to hospital data, 5,136 children with encephalitis died in its wards between 2005 and 2012. This year, 118 children had died by the end of May. The figures don't include children treated at private clinics or those who never made it to medical care.

Survivors who develop brain damage, common among young children, have no rehabilitation centers despite a 2011 court order telling the state government to set them up.

For Amit's father, Birza Majhi, there is little hope.

"People in my village have asked us to leave our son at a railway station or somewhere else. They say this boy has no future. He is just a burden on us," he said. "How can we do it, sir? As long as I'm alive I'll keep trying."

Explore further: Encephalitis kills at least 430 in India

Related Stories

Encephalitis kills at least 430 in India

October 15, 2011
At least 430 people, mainly children, have died from an outbreak of encephalitis in a deeply neglected region of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, officials said on Saturday.

Cases of rare but deadly encephalitis rising among kids, report finds

January 17, 2013
(HealthDay)—Although still rare, the extremely serious disease known as Eastern equine encephalitis may be affecting more people than before.

CDC: 105 US children died this flu season

March 22, 2013
(AP)—Health officials say the flu season is winding down, and it has killed 105 children—about the average toll.

Pakistan child measles deaths surge in 2012

January 1, 2013
Measles cases surged in Pakistan in 2012 with hundreds of children dying of the disease, an international health body said Tuesday.

Pakistan records 103 child measles deaths in 19 days: WHO

January 23, 2013
More than 100 children have died of measles in Pakistan this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday, calling it "an alarming outbreak."

Recommended for you

Co-infection with two common gut pathogens worsens malnutrition in mice

July 27, 2017
Two gut pathogens commonly found in malnourished children combine to worsen malnutrition and impair growth in laboratory mice, according to new research published in PLOS Pathogens.

Finish your antibiotics course? Maybe not, experts say

July 27, 2017
British disease experts on Thursday suggested doing away with the "incorrect" advice to always finish a course of antibiotics, saying the approach was fuelling the spread of drug resistance.

Phase 3 trial confirms superiority of tocilizumab to steroids for giant cell arteritis

July 26, 2017
A phase 3 clinical trial has confirmed that regular treatment with tocilizumab, an inhibitor of interleukin-6, successfully reduced both symptoms of and the need for high-dose steroid treatment for giant cell arteritis, the ...

A large-scale 'germ trap' solution for hospitals

July 26, 2017
When an infectious airborne illness strikes, some hospitals use negative pressure rooms to isolate and treat patients. These rooms use ventilation controls to keep germ-filled air contained rather than letting it circulate ...

Researchers report new system to study chronic hepatitis B

July 25, 2017
Scientists from Princeton University's Department of Molecular Biology have successfully tested a cell-culture system that will allow researchers to perform laboratory-based studies of long-term hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections. ...

Male hepatitis B patients suffer worse liver ailments, regardless of lifestyle

July 25, 2017
Why men with hepatitis B remain more than twice as likely to develop severe liver disease than women remains a mystery, even after a study led by a recent Drexel University graduate took lifestyle choices and environments ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.