Encephalitis Eradication Movement planning questionnaire

Furious residents of encephalitis-hit eastern Uttar Pradesh have said they intend to make the Central and State governments' poor public health policies an election issue when the State goes to the polls next year.

Eminent paediatrician R.N. Singh told The Hindu that the newly formed Encephalitis Eradication Movement — set up in the midst of a devastating epidemic that has claimed over 500 lives, mainly of children — will confront candidates with a questionnaire asking their plan of action to tackle the disease.

In 2009, the Union government sanctioned Rs.588.17 crore under the National Rural Health Mission to pay for 135 additional staff to deal with the annual outbreak of acute encephalitis syndrome — which has claimed 15,000 lives, and left a similar number permanently disabled, since it first appeared in the region in 1978 but no funds were sanctioned last year. This year only Rs. 63.25 lakh has been sanctioned.

Last year, no funds were sanctioned to pay for the staff — and this year, the amount covers the salaries of only 36 staff members.

Dr. Singh said a seven-point questionnaire would be distributed to the estimated 2 crore voters in the eight worst-affected districts of Uttar Pradesh to confront the candidates with policy relevant questions. He complained that though the region is represented by 42 members of the Legislative Assembly and 9 members of Parliament, they have never lobbied as a group for better health infrastructure.

The Movement wants Japanese encephalitis and its water-borne cousin enteroviral encephalitis declared national health emergencies. It also wants encephalitis management included in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan, and wants funds to install a sanitary toilet and a hand pump, giving access to clean water, for every 10 homes.

Union Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was given a representation on these issues during his recent visit to Gorakhpur, but he has only promised to set up a Group of Ministers to look into the issue. “The issue is not to be looked into,” local activist Manoj Kumar Singh said. “We already know what the issues are. We need a remedy to save our children.”

In 2006, the Allahabad High Court ordered that the disease “must be taken as health emergency by both the Central and the State governments.” Its order said: “A concrete action plan must be drawn in this regard.”