It’s time Bihar govt stepped up
CLOSE to 150 children have fallen prey to the deadly acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) in Muzaffarpur. Who’s to be blamed? Poverty, malnourishment and government’s failure to create awareness among the vulnerable groups in the district and its inability to cope when the tragedy struck top the list. No wonder, the children of the Dalit and Mahadalit communities were the worst-hit.
“The AES cases had dropped drastically in 2017-18, thanks to a massive awareness campaign in each block of the state, particularly in Muzaffarpur,” said Arun Shah, a senior paediatrician and member of the national executive committee of the Indian Paediatrics Association.
“This time, though, the government machinery was busy with Parliamentary elections, resulting in inadequate awareness among the vulnerable, poverty-stricken families of the area.”
Even as the consumption of litchis is being blamed for the disease and the resulting deaths, Shah says the fruit is merely a trigger. “Litchi is the triggering factor of AES, that too if the child was hungry and malnourished,” said Shah who has done considerable research on the disease with his colleagues. “In the AES cases, there’s a sudden drop in glucose levels, known as hypoglycaemia in medical parlance, when a child consumes unripe litchis. The fruit contains a toxin during the hot and humid conditions, and this leads to symptoms like convulsion and unconsciousness; fever may or may not be found in the AES cases.”
As only malnourished children fall prey to the disease, the government needs to focus on strengthening the social-economic condition of the people and improving their diet. Besides, says Shah, each primary health centre, referral hospitals, should be strengthened with trained doctors and auxiliary staff before the month of May, when the disease begins spreading its tentacles. “We have already made recommendations to the Nitish Kumar government on how to check the disease. It’s for him to take the call now,” said Shah.
Meanwhile, the parents who lost their children could do nothing but grieve over their loss. Anima Devi, a resident of Silout village of Muzaffarpur, said: “In the absence of regular employment, whenever the season of Litchi comes, my husband and I go to Litchi orchards for work. When we were out for work, my 10-year-old son died of the AES.”
“If the government seriously wants to check AES, it should create regular jobs for the poor. It should also strengthen health system at the grassroots level and some sort of programme on nutrition must be in place”, said a social activist on the condition of anonymity.