Encephalitis spreads in Indian state, 200 dead

Oxygen masks have run out, so the children in the pediatric wards are provided cardboard cones with pipes jabbed into.

As mosquito-borne encephalitis sweeps through India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, hundreds of sick children from poor families are crowding hospitals where they get scanty health care and little government help. Authorities are struggling to cope with the spread of the virus, which has killed about 200 children - even though it can be prevented with US$1 (euro0.8) immunizations.

The state's response to the widening encephalitis crisis provides a glimpse into India's crumbling public health system that has often failed its biggest customers - the millions of poor.

Officials say there is no money to buy the lifesaving vaccines. Dr O.P. Singh, the state's director-general of health, said the vaccination of over 7 million children would cost 2.5 billion rupees (US$58 million; Ђ47 million), but the entire Uttar Pradesh health budget is 1.06 billion rupees (US$25 million; Ђ20.4 million).

The state purchased 200,000 vaccines from a federal laboratory _ but in June, when monsoon rains were already under way and leaving water puddles allowing mosquitos to breed.

Japanese encephalitis, which often hits children, is caused by a mosquito-borne virus that attacks the brain. Symptoms of the disease include high fever, followed by seizures, vomiting, then vomiting of blood. Eventually, victims can fall into a coma. Behavioral changes and delirium also often occur.

On Thursday in the state capital, Lucknow, a rickshaw puller's 6-year-old son gasped for breath outside a government hospital ward as his helpless father watched and pleaded with every passing doctor and nurse. But there were no beds and no help in the overcrowded hospital; within hours, the boy was dead.

The boy's angry relatives broke the window panes of the hospital and accused doctors of negligence.

The remorseful doctors then got to work. They pooled money to enable Nirmal Upadhyay, the father, to take his child home for cremation.

"We can understand the anguish of a father. But what we can do? We do not have space to admit any more children," said Dr. Anurag Yadav at King George's Medical College.

Inside, doctors are giving makeshift oxygen masks, made out of cardboard, to patients because supplies have run out. As a child tries to breathe, an attendant has to constantly hold the cones, which leave marks on the children's noses.

Meanwhile, the disease is spreading in the state of 180 million people, who have little or no access to modern health facilities, the AP reports. Most residents live in villages.

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