Encephalitis death toll goes up to 700, mostly children

An outbreak of Japanese encephalitis in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has claimed the lives of nearly 700 v according to official figures.

Aid agencies say the real toll could be closer to 1,500.

They allege local health workers could be under reporting the number of deaths in their areas for fear of punishment for not halting the spread of the disease.

When the BBC's Ram Dutt Tripathi visited Baba Raghavdas Hospital in Gorakhpur he found two or three children to every bed in one ward.

Many were unconscious and their anxious parents were applying cold wraps to their forehead while nurses adjusted saline drips.

"This is unprecedented," says Professor KP Kushwaha at the hospital. "I have seen 15 to 20 children dying every day. I am pained because I am seeing them dying with my own eyes and sometimes I feel helpless,” reports BBC

According to Washington Post, the United Nations faulted India for falling behind on key public health goals, last week, in its annual human development report, noting that its infant mortality rate is now higher than that of Bangladesh. One in 11 Indian children dies before the age of 5.

"It's a lot of politics in vaccine," complained Komal Prasad Kushwaha, a senior pediatrician at the hospital who has watched in frustration as the death toll from Japanese encephalitis in India has climbed steadily over the last two decades. "We have been crying for vaccine since very long. If vaccine is available for all children in the community, Japanese encephalitis will certainly be controlled."

Health officials in Uttar Pradesh have said they are trying to contain the epidemic by spraying against mosquitoes, which typically acquire the virus from pigs before passing it on to humans. Over the longer term, they are trying to shift pig farms, which can act as reservoirs for the disease, away from crowded villages.

The Indian health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss, has said he wants to remove barriers to the import of Japanese encephalitis vaccines in time to begin mass vaccinations in high-risk areas by April, before the disease makes its seasonal reappearance. Ramadoss and his aides did not respond to phone messages and two faxed requests for comment.

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