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India’s Own Epidemic That The Media Isn’t Talking About!

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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

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. 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!

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  1. prakhar

    I am glad someone wrote about the situation and documented it so well. The fact that this is not ‘glitzy’ news, not happening in ‘Delhi’ or some well known political constituency keeps the media away from putting it as frontpage news. Yearly reports about the wretched living condition in the eastern UP and Bihar come and go, hundreds of infants die, lakhs remain impoverished due to these diseases and the media and the government continue to turn a blind eye on it.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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