x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Lack of oxygen blamed for dozens of child deaths at Indian hospital

Officials insist there was adequate oxygen despite hospital not paying supplier's bills 

Workers examine oxygen cylinders at the Baba Raghav Das Hospital in Gorakhpur, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on August 12, 2017, after the recent deaths of dozens of child patients was blamed on a lack of oxygen supply. AFP
Workers examine oxygen cylinders at the Baba Raghav Das Hospital in Gorakhpur, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on August 12, 2017, after the recent deaths of dozens of child patients was blamed on a lack of oxygen supply. AFP

Sixty children died in the space of days at a hospital in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh last week, prompting allegations that the deaths were caused by a lack of oxygen supplies.

The BRD Medical College said 34 of the deaths were of babies in the neo-natal intensive care unit, 12 were because of encephalitis, and the rest died of other, unspecified causes.

Local media have reported that some of the deaths were caused due to an oxygen shortage after a private supplier withdrew its equipment over unpaid hospital dues.

The hospital's chief medical superintendent Dr R S Shukla denied the deaths had been caused by a lack of oxygen supply.

The hospital released a statement saying there was a "drop in pressure in the supply of liquid oxygen" on Thursday, but cylinders were procured from other suppliers. It did not say whether that had resulted in any deaths.

The breakdown of the death toll provided by the hospital showed a spike on Thursday, with 23 fatalities, including 14 babies at its neo-natal unit.

The Uttar Pradesh and federal governments are investigating the matter, officials said. A tweet from the prime minister's office said Narendra Modi was constantly monitoring the situation.

Prashant Trivedi, the state's top health official, admitted that there was a problem in the pipeline supplying oxygen.

"But the situation was managed through oxygen cylinders. The hospital administration has enough supply of cylinders in its stock. So the report about death of children because of oxygen issue is false," Mr Trivedi said.

The deaths have sparked a political firestorm as opposition politicians sought to pin the blame on Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the state.

The hospital is in Gorakhpur district, which is represented by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who was appointed to head the state this year.

"The current government is responsible for the deaths of children in Gorakhpur due to the lack of oxygen. Strict action should be taken," tweeted former state chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.

State government officials in TV appearances chastised opposition leaders for seeking to politicise the issue.

Outbreaks of encephalitis are common every year in India, claiming hundreds of lives, especially during the monsoon season. The disease is most often caused by contaminated food or water, mosquito bites, or through breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected person.

The BRD hospital, which has become a major centre for children with encephalitis, has treated nearly 370 cases in the last two months. Of these, 129 children had died, said Satish Chandra, a hospital spokesman.

Rajiv Rautela, the local district magistrate, said the hospital owed 6.8 million rupees (Dh390,000) to the company, but added that it had adequate numbers of oxygen cylinders.

India spends about one per cent of its GDP on public health, among the lowest in the world. Successive governments have faced criticism for not reforming the overburdened public health system which is still plagued with a shortage of doctors and dilapidated infrastructure.

Mr Modi's government has in recent years increased health spending and vowed to make health care more affordable.

With additional reporting from Associated Press