GORAKHPUR, India (AP) — A mosquito-borne disease that preys on the young and malnourished is sweeping across poverty-riven northern India again this monsoon season in what officials worry could be the deadliest outbreak in nearly a decade.
Encephalitis has killed at least 118 children so far this year and authorities fear the death toll could reach about 1,000, said Dr. R.N. Singh of the Encephalitis Eradication Movement, an Indian nonprofit.
While India’s efforts against polio and tuberculosis get plenty of attention, the poor farmers and day laborers of eastern Uttar Pradesh state face an almost-silent emergency, battling a disease that has killed thousands of children over the past eight years.
Many families have taken out crushing loans for treatment. The children who survive often cannot communicate because of brain damage. They stare off listlessly, unable to recognize friends they played with just months before. Some are so severely disabled that their impoverished parents are told to abandon them.
Sangita Devi’s 4-year-old son Anup Kumar has been in a hospital for four months.
“We have mortgaged our house for our son’s treatment. But there is no improvement in his condition. He cannot even stand now,” she said.
The disease is predictable and preventable. The annual monsoon fills parched paddy fields, which bear the mosquitoes that spread Japanese encephalitis from pigs to humans, devastating malnourished children with low immunity. Another strain of the disease — acute encephalitis syndrome — spreads through contaminated water. Residents defecate in the fields, contaminating the ground water.
A vaccine has long been available, but the state government — which spent tens of millions of dollars building monuments to its last top politician — has failed to muster the sustained political will to focus on the communities hardest hit by the illness.
The disease killed more than 1,500 children in 2005, the worst recent year,
Shocked by the deaths, Uttar Pradesh’s highest court in 2006 asked the state and federal governments to declare encephalitis a national health emergency. “A concrete action plan must be drawn,” it said.