Japanese encephalitis death toll nears 1,000 in India and Nepal

An encephalitis outbreak has killed nearly 1,000 people almost all of them children in India and neighboring Nepal, as too few doctors struggle to care for thousands of sick children in outdated hospitals.

The death toll in India's northern Uttar Pradesh state stood Monday at 767, after 27 more deaths were reported overnight. Nepal has logged 204 deaths.

Every day, parents from the poorest corners of India's most populous state pour into the small town of Gorakhpur, some carrying unconscious children whose limp bodies flop from side to side as they're raced into one of the Japanese encephalitis wards at the B.R.D. Medical College.

Vaccines exist and measures can be taken to minimize exposure to the mosquitoes that spread the disease from pigs. But the tired physicians say such solutions might as well not exist without money and a strong political will to ensure that help reaches these poor, rural families.

Dr. O.P. Singh, Uttar Pradesh state's director-general of health, has said it would cost about US$58 million to vaccinate the more than 7 million children aged 15 and under in the most-affected areas. The state's entire health budget is US$25 million.

"It's too hard for us also to see so many children and to see some dying and some handicapped and knowing this is a vector disease that can be controlled by removing all pigs from society," said Dr. K.P. Kushwaha, a pediatrician overseeing the hospital's Japanese encephalitis wards.

The Japanese encephalitis virus closely related to West Nile Virus is found only in Asia, where it's the leading cause of neurological infection. The World Health Organization says about 50,000 cases are reported annually, including 15,000 deaths, but many more go unreported.

Eastern Uttar Pradesh is especially prone to the disease because it is a prime rice-growing region that breeds mosquitoes in its puddles and rice paddies. Its bowl-shaped geography allows little drainage after rains. Also, farmers often raise pigs close to where people live.

The disease sickens only about 1 in 250 people infected with children from 1 to 15 the prime prey. Most adults in affected areas typically have developed natural immunity, reports the AP.

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