“I told you before that this press conference is on banking committees, if you have questions related to the banks I can answer. This is not for other issues”, said Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi when questioned by journalists about the rising toll of encephalitis deaths in Muzaffarpur. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was earlier booed out by angry and suffering families when he finally decided to visit the hospitals in the town that has become the epicentre of one of the worst encephalitis epidemics where the death toll of little children is close to 120 already.

The Opposition of course, has gone invisible with political leaders keeping away from the death-torn town in Bihar.

This even as reports have started finally coming out in some more detail of the complete lack of medical facilities in Muzaffarpur to treat even basic fevers, let alone a complicated killing disease of this kind. The scenes of trauma and agony have failed to move the authorities to provide doctors, nurses ---both in short supply---and infrastructure facilities that remain non existent. The poor meanwhie have flooded what goes by the name of ‘hospitals’ in Muzaffarpur to bring relief to their dying children.

The indifference and callousness is directly linked to the fact that encephalitis is a poor man’s disease with the virus hitting those who are susceptible in the first place. Malnutrition that afflicts the poor of India is a major cause of the spread of this virus, that has so far not been identified and is being called locally ‘chamki bimari’, a reference to the suddeness of the attack and deaths.

Without bothering to identify the virus and the reasons, the state government first blamed the consumption of lychees as the reason. This is a long shot, that basically requires infected birds to spread the virus through the fruit, of which there has been no proof. No study carried out to corroborate it. This has led to local panic with people across the state actually rejecting the seasons fruit as a carrier of encephalistic virus.

Called a poor man’s disease, as it strikes children living in bad conditions and suffering from malnutrition. As Dr Kafeel Khan who has set up camp with two other doctors to treat patients in Muzaffarpur on their own, said, the virus does not usually hit children from affluent families, living in good sanitary conditions, and healthy. It catches the poor, and as is visible now spreads like wildifre if immediate measures are not taken to stem it. In this case the Bihar government seems to have failed miserably in providing immediate relief.

Muzaffarpur’s two hospitals - Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital and Kejriwal Matri Sadan – do not handle more than 30 odd patients a day and are ill staffed without necessary medical facilities. This sharp hike in patients, with parents panicking over the increasing number of deaths, has created chaos without even the medicines required to treat the affected children. It might be recalled from the Gorakhpur incident that a steady supply of oxygen is the only treatment for affected patients that can save them from death. The Muzaffarpur hospitals have a handful of ventilators and according to local reports, most of these are not in working condition.

Currently at least five children are sharing a bed, and the ICU is teeming with relatives and outsiders who should not be allowed in. A television anchor who entered the ICU where the most serious, and dying patients, are being treated has created a storm of protest as she walked through the protected area with her camera crew, badgering doctors at work, and creating a visible nuisance of herself. No one was able to stop her and the TV crew as they happily violated all medical and journalistic norms.

Disruption of oxygen supply killed children and made nationwide headlines in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. As their lifeline was disrupted because of non payment of bills. But in the case of Muzaffarpur, the lack of medical facilities is compounding the situation, with the death toll increasing every day.

The state governments have completely failed to address the issue over decades, despite the recurrence of this epidemic and the deaths and suffering. This despite the fact that official reports have pointed to acute malnutrition in Muzaffarpur where 48% children under the age of five years are stunted. The National Family Health Survey has placed over 17% as too thin, and 42% underweight. A recent central team probe into the ongoing deaths in Muzaffarpur has confirmed that the medical facilities in the two city hospitals are sub-standard to say the least.

Meanwhile the virus has spread to adjoining districts like Vaishali and Samastipur. New admissions are being reporter every day. There is anger underlying the suffering, that was evident when the CM sought to meet the families and the patients. The key cause of malnutrition and hygiene that provides the red carpet for the killer virus has, needless to say, not even been addressed by governments in the state or centre.

Cover Photo PTI