Ground Report: Muzaffarpur: One Doctor for 40-50 Patients, a Broken Health Machinery & AES Killing Bihar’s Children
"They're offering us Rs 4 lakh compensation. What will we do with the money when our children are dead?" asked one father.
Media personnel had flocked to the Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH) in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur. District Magistrate Ranjan Ghosh was holding a press conference. At the same time, the dead body of a child was wheeled outside from the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) and a mother’s wail pierced through the hospital. Parents of other children admitted to the PICU for symptoms of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) are engulfed by dread.
Rohit Paswan’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Ambika Kumari is one such child. Rohit said, “On the night of June 15, she went to sleep after eating home-cooked food. In the middle of the night, her limbs became stiff and then she started vomiting. We consulted a doctor in the village who sent us to SKMCH. The doctor told me that her condition is stable for now but there is no guarantee that it won’t worsen.”
Like Rohit, dozens of parents are also worried. AES has killed over 130 children in the district. Approximately one child dies every hour at the SKMCH hospital. A majority of these children come from poor families and doctors have linked the illness to malnutrition.
The situation at govt-run SKMCH
Over 20 children are admitted to the SKMCH every day. Hospital administration has set up five PICU wards. Each ward has around 15-20 children. When NewsCentral24x7 visited the hospital, we found that both the PICU-3 and PICU-4 were being looked after one doctor only. He shuttled between both wards. We were told that another doctor had gone to attend a meeting.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one hospital nurse said that due to a severe staff shortage, just one doctor had been attending to children in not one or two but three entire wards.
Despair looms over parents
Lalla Kumar was admitted to the SKMCH on Monday morning. His father Suresh Rai said, “Treatment in this hospital is not being carried out properly, but if we knew about this earlier, we wouldn’t have come here.” He expresses dissatisfaction with the Nitish Kumar government, “So many children have died. But the Chief Minister hasn’t visited us once. “They’re offering us Rs 4 lakh compensation. What will we do with the money when our children are dead?”
Many are unhappy with the hospital administration. They alleged negligence and say that there’s nobody to look after the patients. Roshan Khatoon, the mother of one-and-a-half-year-old Sanjeeda Khatoon, admitted in PICU 2, asks, “If there was proper treatment, then wouldn’t our child have opened her eyes in three days? Please tell us, where do we go? Tell us if you know a good doctor who could save our child? Please look at her and tell us if she will survive?”
The nurse in the PICU 2 ward said Sanjeeda’s condition is critical.
Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, Bihar Health Minister Dr Mangal Pandey and other central and state ministers have visited SKMCH to take stock of the situation. Dr Harsh Vardhan had then assured that the situation would improve. But no significant steps have been taken towards tackling the shortage of doctors and beds at the hospital. At the time of writing this report, the shortage of beds was such, each bed was occupied by two children.
After 125 children had died, the Bihar Chief Minister had visited SKMCH on Tuesday. During his visit, he was met with stiff opposition from grieving parents, who raised slogans — “Nitish Kumar Wapas Jao” — Nitish Kumar, go back.
AES and its causes
AES, commonly known as Chamki Bukhar, is an umbrella term for a variety of infections that cause swelling of brain cells. It predominantly affects children between the ages of one and 14. Children with low sodium and blood sugar levels, and those suffering from malnutrition are particularly vulnerable. Major symptoms of AES include headache, vomiting, stiffness of limbs, fever and bouts of fainting.
Researchers and the scientific community have not been able to pinpoint the exact cause of the disease. Some experts have linked it to the toxin called MCPG found in lychees. However, Vishal Nath, the director of the National Leechee Research Centre, rejected this claim. Speaking to NewsCentral 24×7, he said that MCPG is found in the lychee seeds and not in the flesh; and no child consumes the seed. He added that children as young as one or two don’t usually eat lychees. Yet, they have been affected by the disease. Some children have fallen sick after eating biscuits as well. Hence, Nath said that blaming leechee for the disease is not justifiable.
SKMCH superintendent SK Sahi said that most children affected by AES belong to poorer households, where they do not have access to adequate nutrition and where there is a lack of awareness regarding health. NewsCentral24x7 found that most of the affected children are indeed from economically weaker households.
AES claims the lives of hundreds of children every year. In 2012, 178 children had succumbed to this disease; in 2014, 139 had died; and this year, in 2019, the death toll has crossed 130 so far.