By Saparya Sood:
Acute Encephalitis Syndrome and Japanese Encephalitis are the recent problems added to the list of India’s miseries. Even though these diseases have always been common in India, especially during the monsoons, this year has been an exception. The outbreak of these diseases, usually most prevalent in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, has spread further east to West Bengal and Assam, killing hundreds of people across regions.
Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain, caused by any one of a number of viruses, says the World Health Organization. The disease is commonly called ‘brain fever’. Symptoms include high fever, vomiting and, in severe cases, seizures, paralysis and coma.
Prime causes of the disease include contaminated food or water, mosquito or other insect bites, or through breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected person. The first case of encephalitis suspected to be reported was around 1995 and yet so many years after, there is little known about the disease. Every year, it seems to worsen and the death toll only rises. This year has seen rapid spread of the disease to the eastern part of India. The victims are mostly children.
While ministers fighting in parliament seems to make it to the headlines on almost every news channel, it makes one wonder what could possibly be the reason for the lack of attention given to the rapid spread of this deadly disease claiming precious human lives everyday, both by the government and the media!
The apathy of the government towards this serious concern is shocking and disturbing. There aren’t enough hospitals with facilities to even diagnose AES or JE, and the hospitals which are equipped are largely over-strained in their capacity with multiple patients on one bed and a very skewed patient to doctor ratio.Â In interior places, people afflicted with the disease have to travel quite a long distance for treatment, which often is the cause of aggravation of their condition.
Vaccination drives started in the past have proved to be quite ineffective, since the JE vaccine requires multiple doses, which has been a significant barrier as a large number of patients from poor and remote areas are unable to return for subsequent doses.
However, a number of precautionary measures that can be taken to reduce the spread of this endemic haven’t been given their due regard. Even though the virus causing the disease is still unknown, its spread can be contained if the government took some preemptive measures. Environmental management of rice paddies by improving agricultural infrastructure in the country, access to clean water for consumption, improving health infrastructure, allocation of funds for research and surveys, increasing awareness about the disease are the basic measures the government should take to ensure that article 21 of the constitution isn’t merely a fundamental right in black and white!
Even though health ministers of the affected states have expressed concerns about the spread of the disease and the rising death toll, quick and adept measures need to be taken to control the rapid spread of this deadly virus. While there have been regional figures of death reported from various areas, it is strange and rather shocking that there are no national figures.
In India, media is the fourth pillar of democracy and is just as much a guardian of fundamental rights as the government in spirit! There is no better and more impactful a forum than the media to create awareness about encephalitis which is now an endemic in India. There is a responsibility on the press to reach out to people and inform and educate people about issues that most affect them. With little being done by the government to mitigate the impact of the disease, the media has the power to create pressure and make our politicians take a break from their petty political issues and pay heed to the large number of people who’s lives are at stake. Pressure from the media on the central and state government and in turn on health authorities to make the control of spread of this disease top priority is not only essential but immensely crucial now more than ever!
While on one hand, we are trying to build an international reputation in medical advancement in fields like commercial surrogacy, on the other, our inability to contain the death toll from encephalitis due to lack of medical infrastructure is a shame on India’s image as that of an upcoming medical tourism destination.
Prevention is better than cure, and though the situation has already gotten out of hand, it could worsen very fast in such a hugely populated country like ours. The media should at-least accord a ‘headline’ status to this issue as creating awareness to take basic precautions is the first step towards controlling the spread of any disease. However, creating sufficient medical facilities by deploying enough trained and specialized doctors in affected areas, along with opening clinics in remote areas is something that the government and heath authorities need to do and shift this issue a couple of notches higher on their priority list!