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Don't Blame Muzaffarpur Deaths on Litchi!

June 17, 2019 09:26 IST
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The government, every year, hides behind the mystery of the disease, linking it with litchis, and does not confess malnutrition as the prime cause, points out Mohammad Sajjad.

IMAGE: A child with symptoms of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome is treated at a hospital in Muzaffarpur. Photograph: PTI Photo

Every year, in late May and early June, as the temperature rises above 40 degree Celsius with westerly winds, followed by humidity with easterly winds, we get horrific news of death of dozens of children in Muzaffarpur, the Litchi bowl of India.

Despite its precise predictability (and being quite localised), we find a criminal unpreparedness of the government.

The half a century old Shri Krishna Medical College Hospital in Muzaffarpur does not get prepared in infrastructural terms to handle the situation.

Its paediatric ICU remains awfully neglected.

Despite being independent India's one of the earliest medical colleges to have been set up by private initiative (later taken over by the government), it is yet to have clinical branches of postgraduate courses.

It, therefore, suffers from acute shortage of medical personnel, besides other infrastructure.


Since 1995 this tragedy has been visiting upon Muzaffarpur's children.

In 2014, there was relatively larger number of deaths.

The newly formed Narendra Damodardas Modi-led government in 2014 sent Health Minister Dr Harshvardhan to Muzaffarpur.

He made many tall promises; persuaded some of the parents to agree to let the doctors obtain samples of the dead children.

It was claimed to have been sent to some specialised laboratories.

Nobody knows what happened to that thereafter.

This year, again, the same Union health minister visited Muzaffarpur.

There were almost similar promises repeated.

The Kejriwal Hospital in Muzaffarpur, managed by a Marwari charitable trust, earlier known mainly for providing low cost maternity-related treatment, started paediatric care after 2014.

Local newspersons tell us that the death rate of admitted child patients of AES (Acute Encephalitis Syndrome), supposedly caused by litchi, at the Kejriwal Hospital is far lower than that at the Shri Krishna Medical College Hospital.

While every third child admitted at the Shri Krishna Medical College Hospital is said to succumb, only every seventh one is unfortunate at the Kejriwal Hospital this year.

Doctors say administering dextrose with alacrity to the affected children is quite helpful.

Yet, there is acute unavailability of dextrose at government hospitals, in rural hospitals of the community development blocks as well as at urban hospitals.

The doctors also say that notwithstanding the mysteries about the disease, once the treatment is conducted in accordance with what is done for AES, they save lives.

Certain parts of Muzaffarpur -- the community development blocks of Baruraj, Motipur, Minapur, Katra, Aurai -- are more affected by this health crisis.

Only poor, malnourished, children fall prey to this disease.

Well nourished children don't get affected reveals a Current Science study (external link).

Despite forewarning, extreme neglect of the infrastructure for paediatric care and lack of immediate preventive measures are the biggest causes for the high casualty rate.

The government, every year, hides behind the mystery of the disease linking it with litchi fruits, and does not confess malnutrition as the prime cause.

The globally renowned health journal, Lancet (volume 5, April 5, 2017), also recommended "rapid glucose correction (external link) to combat the diseased.

Yet, the government did not make this available at its hospitals.

Each community development block has government hospitals.

By April, these hospitals should have been supplied with adequate stock of dextrose.

But this did not happen.

Shockingly, even the political Opposition has not staged any significant protest to expose the government's callous unpreparedness.

Nobody has asked for Bihar Health Minister the Bharatiya Janata Party's Mangal Pandey's resignation.

Nor has the Opposition spoken out inside the legislature.

Tejashwi Yadav, the leader of the Oppostion in the Bihar assembly, has not visited Muzaffarpur yet.

The Indian Medical Association has been silent as well.

The IMA was likewise mute when the deaths of children at the Gorakhpur Medical College occurred a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the Gorakhpur tragedy ended up with the victimisation of Dr Kafeel Khan who intervened to save the children.

Doctors with private practice in Muzaffarpur earn large amounts of money. Sadly, they don't feel a social responsibility to spend some amount on charitable welfare, cleanliness and beautification.

The localities of private nursing homes in Muzaffarpur (Juran Chapra) are the dirtiest in the city.

These doctors do not fund dextrose to the government hospitals of the community development blocks either.

The Muzaffarpur tragedy exposes our collective degeneration as a society which has vitiated the polity and governance to the extent that only caste and religion-based hatred provokes us to protest.

This is perhaps the biggest tragedy of our times!

Professor Mohammad Sajjad, who teaches history at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, is the author of Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857 (Primus, 2014).

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