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Encephalitis outbreak kills hundreds of Indian children

Experts are trying to contain the outbreak, but admit they face serious challenges, not least trying to determine which form of the disease they are dealing with.

An Indian child suffering from encephalitis lies on a bed at The Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur, southeast of Lucknow. At least 350 children have died from encephalitis in Uttar Pradesh this year. AFP
An Indian child suffering from encephalitis lies on a bed at The Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur, southeast of Lucknow. At least 350 children have died from encephalitis in Uttar Pradesh this year. AFP

NEW DELHI // Indian health officials are struggling to contain an outbreak of encephalitis that has claimed hundreds of lives in Uttar Pradesh.

Most of its victims have been children in at least three districts across the eastern state, which is home to about 200 million people.

Experts are trying to contain the outbreak, but admit they face serious challenges, not least trying to determine which form of encephalitis they are dealing with.

“Which virus this is, that is causing these deaths, we are not yet sure. We are not yet able to catch it,” said Dr Pritu Dhalaria, a public health specialist and team leader of the Japanese Encephalitis project with Path, a non-profit health organisation.

At least 350 children have died from encephalitis in Uttar Pradesh this year.

Encephalitis causes swelling of the brain and has flu-like symptoms, starting with a headache, fever, then more serious conditions of convulsions, followed by coma and death.

It is often transmitted by mosquitos and tends to spread across India during the rainy season when stagnant water provides ideal breeding grounds for the mosquitos.

As many as 15-20 cases have been reported every day, according to Dr DK Srivastava, director of medical health for the Uttar Pradesh government.

“We are trying to do all we can and provide medical treatment as soon as possible to prevent deaths,” Dr Srivastava said, while on his way to visit patients in the district of Gorakhpur, in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Following a devastating outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis in 2005 that killed more than 2,000 people, mostly children in India and Nepal, the Indian government launched a massive public outreach campaign to provide vaccinations to children up to the age of 15 to help control the spread of the disease. Since 2006, more than 88 million children across India have been vaccinated. The vaccine, imported from China, and approved by the World Health Organisation, contains the culture of an active virus, which means a single dose is enough, making it cost-effective as well.

Last week, the Indian government took a step further in trying to manage the disease. Ghulam Nabi Azad, India’s health minister, introduced on Friday a new vaccine to prevent the spread of the Japanese Encephalitis. India’s first indigenously produced vaccine, called JenVac contains an inactive virus, which means two-three doses will be given to a child in order to be immunised. This may be more costly than the imports from China but it may also help lead the way to combat the other kinds of virus that cause Acute Encephalitis Syndrome, which is on the verge of causing another endemic similar to the one that swept the country almost eight years ago.

“This was developed from a strain of the the Japanese Encephalitis virus that is found in India,” said Dr Dhalaria. “This is going to be a good vaccine. This gives us hope.”

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae