It has been a dark and mournful Diwali for the families of 72 children who died of Japanese encephalitis in Bihar's Gaya district this year. Celebrations gave way for mourning, as the families prayed for peace of the souls of the departed loved ones.
According to health officials, the brain infection killed 72 children in Gaya in the last two months, while more than 20 children who are suffering from the disease are battling for life.
Villagers Buddhan Manjhi and Gopi Manjhi lost their children to JE. "My son died due to the disease earlier this month," said Buddhan, a Mahadalit, who works as a labourer to earn his livelihood.
Similarly, the son of Baleshwar Manjhi and daughter of Rajan Manjhi are undergoing treatment in hospital. They were too worried about the disease and the condition of their children to get into the festive mood.
Most of the children who have succumbed to the illness belong to Mahadalit families.
A three-member team of doctors from New Delhi visited the government hospital in Gaya last week to discuss the measures taken to check the spread of the disease, district civil surgeon Dilip Kumar said.
The first encephalitis-related death in the district this year was reported on August 23.
Encephalitis is an acute inflammation of the brain resulting either from a viral infection or when the body's own immune system mistakenly attacks brain tissue. The children reported high fever, followed by bouts of unconsciousness and convulsions, the health official said.
State Health Secretary Sanjay Kumar, who visited Gaya last week, said the children died due to Japanese encephalitis.
"The state government is serious in tackling the issue and has directed health officials to spray malathion in the affected areas and ensure doses of JE vaccine to children in affected villages by the end of October," he said.
According to ANMCH pediatrics head A K Ravi, most of the children who died were from rural areas of Gaya and neighbouring districts. He said that till date 306 children with suspected encephalitis have been admitted for treatment.
Suspected encephalitis in Gaya killed 46 children in 2009, 49 in 2008 and 29 in 2007, a district administration official said.
Two months ago, 55 children died in Muzaffarpur district but the state government is yet to confirm these as encephalitis deaths.
Union Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad last month informed the Rajya Sabha that clinical and epidemiological data suggested that it was an outbreak of acute encephalitis syndrome, resulting in 150 cases and 55 deaths, mostly among children.
In a written reply, the minister said these cases were reported from early June to mid-July from Muzaffarpur and its bordering areas in Bihar.