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Not protecting cows or arresting Romeos, eradicating encephalitis is Yogi Adityanath’s greatest challenge

I’m confident the Yogi is one politician who knows that encephalitis deaths cannot be viewed as just another tragedy. He knows many are preventable. If they’re not, then, they are, in fact, man-made.

columns Updated: Aug 19, 2017 17:57 IST
Yogi Adityanath,Adityanath,encephalitis
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath with State Health Minister Siddharth Nath Singh at the inauguration of Japanese Encephalitis eradication drive at Musahar village in Kushinagar district(PTI)

We perceive encephalitis as a disease of the poor and, more especially, their children and, consequently, our response is one of callous unconcern. It occurs in distant Gorakhpur, which is not just far away but, virtually, another country. How many even know where it is?

Yet the truth is encephalitis can happen to anyone, of any age and anywhere in the world. Nisha, my wife, was 33 when she succumbed in London. The only countries she had visited in the preceding six weeks were Canada and The Netherlands. In the same year, 1989, Deepak, my best man Praveen Anand’s brother, died of encephalitis in Bombay. Quite possibly, neither Nisha nor Deepak had even heard of Gorakhpur or its notorious connection with this killer disease.

Encephalitis is a viral infection of several types which can be air or water borne, the result of a mosquito bite or spread by ticks. Most of the time it manifests itself as a fever, cold or headache. It’s only when it crosses the blood-brain barrier that it can become life-threatening.

There’s no cure for encephalitis. It can only be treated. However, there is a vaccination for one form of the disease, Japanese encephalitis. Yet, year after year hundreds, sometimes thousands, of children in Gorakhpur die of Japanese encephalitis. Their deaths are clearly avoidable but our lack of concern permits them to happen.

It’s not that we don’t realise this. We just don’t care. As Gorakhpur MP, Yogi Adityanath raised this issue in Parliament 20 times between 2003 and 2014. In 2009 he pointed out to the Lok Sabha that Japanese encephalitis first appeared in UP in 1978 but 31 years later “a large part of eastern UP and western Bihar are in the grip of an epidemic and every year thousands of children die because of this disease.”

The Yogi made similar speeches in 2011 and 2013. In 2014, he directly addressed his own BJP government and, in particular, Health Minister J P Nadda. But deaths from Japanese encephalitis continued. Thus, between 2004 and 2017, there was a total of 15,315 – 54% or 8,267 in UP alone.

Today, the Yogi is chief minister of UP. Now he has the opportunity to do more than raise concern. He can also act decisively and I’m sure he will. But the message from Amit Shah, the powerful BJP President, is hardly encouraging: “In this big country there have been many tragedies and this is not the first time. Tragedies have occurred under Congress rule too.”

I’m confident the Yogi is one politician who knows that encephalitis deaths cannot be viewed as just another tragedy. He knows many are preventable. If they’re not, then, they are, in fact, man-made.

Indeed, recent research suggests many children who’ve died of encephalitis were actually admitted to hospital in Gorakhpur with scrub typhus, a mite-borne disease endemic in Uttar Pradesh. Because it wasn’t diagnosed and, therefore, treated it led to inflammation of the brain, the worst form of encephalitis. If this hypothesis is correct, these deaths were also avoidable. Now that he’s chief minister the Yogi must establish the truth. After all, these were children of his constituency.

This is why I don’t support calls for his resignation. This is one moment when he must dig in his heels and fight as he’s never fought before. More than protecting cows and far more than arresting Romeos, eradicating encephalitis is the greatest challenge the Yogi faces. I pray for his success.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 19, 2017 17:22 IST