Monday, 16 September 2019

Anger in India as lychee-linked brain fever kills 113 children

An Indian child arrives in a hospital due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome as family members weep in Muzaffarpur, Bihar last week. – AFP

PATNA: Ten more children died Tuesday from a mysterious brain fever potentially linked to lychees, officials said, taking the death toll to 113 this month and sparking angry protests in India s poorest Bihar state.

Sixty children, mostly under the age of 10 and malnourished, are undergoing treatment after an outbreak of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) in Muzaffarpur district of the eastern state.

Bihar health department official Ashok Kumar Singh told AFP that ten children died on Tuesday, taking the overall death count in June to 113. “Six children were discharged after being treated for AES,” Singh said.

He warned that the toll may rise with fresh cases trickling-in, as dozens undergo treatment in packed hospital wards. Television images showed several children to a bed.

On Tuesday, dozens of people gathered outside the main hospital in Muzaffarpur to accuse local authorities of acting too slowly and of not caring.

The state s health minister came in for particular criticism after asking reporters about the score in India s cricket match against Pakistan on Sunday during a news conference on the crisis.

“Bihar s Health Minister Mangal Pandey seems more worried about cricket score than the death of children,” tweeted Randeep Surjewala of the opposition Congress party. Rabri Devi, another opposition figure, called the deaths “cold-blooded murder”. “Children are dying because of a lack of medicines and treatment,” she tweeted.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar Tuesday faced angry protesters as he made his first visit to the state-run Sri Krishna Medical College, where most of the children have died. Reporters were barred from entering the facility, and the families of sick children were kept away from the premises.

The disease sets in rapidly and is characterised by plummeting blood sugar, high fever, convulsions and paralysis. It is caused by viruses, bacteria and toxins spread in different ways. Outbreaks have occurred annually during summer months in the same districts since 1995, typically coinciding with the lychee season.

Apart from 2014 when a record 357 children died in the state, the annual death toll is usually much lower. Several years ago US researchers said the brain disease could be linked to a toxic substance found in lychees, the tropical fruit. They also said more study was needed to uncover the cause of the illness, known locally as Chamki Bukhar, which is fatal in a third of cases.

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