As doctors in Malkangiri district hospital declared four-year-old Rama Madhi dead on Wednesday afternoon, his father Macha Madhi was simply inconsolable.
Madhi ostensibly was the latest victim of Japanese Encephalitis or Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), a mosquito-borne disease which has reportedly claimed 48 lives in the southern Odisha district since September.
Though Malkangiri is generally endemic to Encephalitis, this year the situation turned more serious ironically due to a good and prolonged monsoon.
District health officials say the disease normally is more prevalent just around the end of monsoon and before the onset of winter when the mosquitoes breed in large number.
“This year the monsoon was pretty good and kept on raining till the end of September. Water accumulations in the paddy fields, which are good breeding grounds for the carrier mosquitoes, have been more this year,” an official said.
Currently 60-odd kids are undergoing treatments at the Malkangiri hospital.
Madhi from the district’s Kalimela block, like the other victims, showed symptoms of vomiting, dizziness and loss of appetite when he was admitted to the hospital on October 8. This led the doctors to suspect he was suffering from the disease, which is characterised by inflammation of brain leading to death in some cases.
In neighbouring Koraput district, the disease has claimed lives of two children while in Puri district an 11-year-old boy died last week after initial recovery.
“For Japanese Encephalitis or AES, there is no treatment. We only treat symptoms like fever, pain, lethargy, severe exhaustion and loss of appetite,” said Malkangiri chief district medical officer Uday Shankar Mishra.
“For kids below eight-year, it is very difficult to battle the virus due to their feeble immunity level,” he added.
Almost all the 48 children succumbed to the virus in Malkangiri are below the age of 8.
“The virus is transmitted to humans from pigs that act as reservoir of the germs via the bite of a mosquito called Culex Vishnoi. There is no other way of transmission,” Mishra said.
The district administration, however, said all the 47 children did not succumb to the disease. “Only 18 so far have been confirmed dead due to Japanese Encephalitis,” said Malkangiri district collector K Sudarshan Chakravarty. “But the incidences are coming down as the number of patients to the hospital has come down in last few days.”
The high death toll was attributed to the apathetic official response to the onset of the disease. BJP leader Bijay Mahapatra however blames both Narendra Modi and Naveen Patnaik government for the deaths. “While the Centre didn’t supply adequate number of vaccines, doctors sent by Odisha govt did not visit affected villages,” alleged Mahapatra.
When the first child in the district succumbed to the disease on September 9, the officials instead of addressing the cause, decided to shift all the infected children to the medical college and hospital at Berhampur, at least 300 km from here. At least 12 of the children died on their way to the hospital or at the medical college after a few days of being admitted.
Though Encephalitis is all about inflammation of brain tissues, there is no MRI machine in the Malkangiri hospital to detect any abnormality in the brain.
Till the disease killed 15-odd children by September-end, the district had only one pediatric specialist. No efforts were also made to segregate of cull pigs. Fogging to prevent breeding of mosquitoes too started in all earnestness just a few days ago.
Parents of the victims said the State government did not also show any urgency in starting any vaccination programme for the kids.
The state government woke up to the menace only last week, despite the district being endemic to Encephalitis since 2012, when 24 people died of the disease.
“For the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD government the lives of poor tribal kids don’t matter. All that matters is the votes of their parents,” said Congress leader Pradip Majhi.
As the death-toll continues to rise, the government finally sent five more pediatric specialists to the district and started a hot- meal programme at Anganwadi centres to provide nutritious food to the rural children.
But the affected residents are not impressed. “I lost my daughter to the disease last month. Will the government be able to bring back my daughter?” asked Malati Halwa, a daily labourer from Malkangiri.