According to the Bihar government, 175 children have died in the state due to acute encephalitis syndrome (AES). One hundred thirty-two children have been killed in Muzaffarpur alone. However, according to NewsCentral24x7’s conversations with villagers in Minapur and Kanti block, it appears that the death toll is much higher.
For instance, according to government estimates, three children have died of AES in the Raghopur panchayat in Minapur block, situated just 15 kilometres from the district headquarter. However, residents of the area say that the illness killed six other children before they could reach the hospital. The deaths of these children are not accounted for in the official tally.
Bihar government has announced a compensation of Rs 4 lakh for the families of children who died of AES. However, not all such families have been able to receive the amount.
Children who never made it to the hospital
Seventy-year-old Mahindra, who lives in Raghopur and works as a daily-wage labourer, says his eight-year-old granddaughter, Gunja, died of AES symptoms on June 18. “On the morning of July 18, she started having seizures and then suddenly died. We couldn’t even take her to the hospital. Her name is not present in government records. How will we get compensation?”
The symptoms of AES include high fever, stiffness in joints, fainting and seizures.
Raghopur panchayat mukhiya Mohammad Yusuf says, “Three children from this panchayat have died at the Sri Krishna Medical College & Hospital. Their parents have received Rs 4 lakh each in compensation. But there are 5-6 children here who died at home. The hospital even refused to admit some of them.”
About the matter, Minapur Block Development Officer Amrendra Kumar told NewsCentral24x7, “Yes, we are aware of the situation. Villagers have informed us. But if the illness hasn’t been confirmed, how would the compensation be provided. We work according to the instructions of the district administration. There hasn’t been a meeting on this yet.”
Another Raghopur resident, Ali Hussain, lost his three-and-a-half-year-old son due to AES. He says, “It happened on the morning of June 14. My son had just woken up, and his eyes started blinking. He had two seizers soon after. We took him to Sri Krishna Medical College & Hospital immediately. But the situation there was not good. I saw children dying in front of my eyes. I had no hope that my son would survive. If the government had made us aware, my child would have been alive today.”
Government machinery unprepared for a disease that has been killing year after year
Children die of AES in Muzaffarpur every year, but the government still fails to take adequate action. Even in 2019, no awareness campaigns were conducted, nor were the government hospitals equipped to tackle the disease better.
In Kanti block’s Mustafapur panchayat, one child has died of AES, but there is no sign of ASHA or Anganwadi workers.
35-year-old Ranjeet Kumar’s two daughters — four-year-old Manika and two-year-old Lalita — and one-month-old son have a high fever. He says, “You are the first person who has come here to talk about this. No one else has approached us. ASHA-Anganwadi workers never come to this village.
In both Minapur and Kanti blocks, the condition of the Primary Health Centres is terrible. The centres are so ill-equipped that essential items such as medicines and even thermometers are unavailable. Villagers complain that they have no reason to approach them for treatment.
Ali Hussain says, “If you go from here to the Primary Health Centre, they will not give you anything except a packet of ORS. For an ORS packet that costs Rs 15, why would we pay Rs 30 in transportation cost? We’ll buy ORS directly from the nearby shop. What good has this government done for us?
In the face of administrative paralysis, groups of students and journalists in the region has been running awareness workshops and relief work in these blocks. They’re distributing essential items like glucose, ORS and thermometer among the villagers.
Satyam Kumar Jha is one such journalist. He spoke to NewsCentral24x7 about the government’s unpreparedness. “These many children would not have died had the government made people aware beforehand. But even after these deaths, ASHA workers are not making rounds in the villages. The Primary Health Centre is in dire condition. People working there do not know basic treatments. Today, we are forced to do the government’s job. But we can’t work like this forever.”
The ASHA for Ali Neura village, Sunita Devi explains, “The government is making us work for free. We haven’t received a penny in months. But we’re still working considering our jobs as social work. We started touring the villages when the district administration asked us to run awareness campaigns. The government should pay attention to the conditions we’re forced to work in.”
Malnutritioned children vulnerable to AES, many households unable to obtain ration
According to the state government’s survey, 75 per cent of the families affected by AES, belong to households living below the poverty line, earning as little as Rs 4,465 a month. One out of three affected families does not have a ration card. And one out of six families who have a ration card, claim that they didn’t get ration from the village PDS shop the previous month.
The link between AES and malnutrition has been pointed out by many experts. Considering the illness’ onset is marked by a dangerous drop in blood sugar level, malnutritioned children are more vulnerable to it than others.
Leela Devi, a resident of Ali Neura village, says, “We have a ration card, but we don’t get ration regularly. The dealer (at the PDS shop) tells us ‘we can’t give all of it to just you.’”
Raghopur mukhiya Mohammad Yusuf explains, “Most poor households do not have a ration card… the dealer (at the PDS shop) acts arbitrarily when it comes to dispensing ration. There are months when he doesn’t provide rations at all.”
The situation of the mid-day meals being provided at the Anganwadis and schools in the block is also far from ideal. Summer holidays came around at the same time when AES started affecting children, and now even this source of food was cut off.
The condition of hospitals, PHCs and Anganwadis show that the deaths of hundreds of children over the last few years are a testament to the failure of the government’s duties towards providing people primary healthcare and nutrition.
This report was first published in Hindi and has been translated.