Over 60 children died between August 7 and 11 at the Baba Raghav Das Medical College, a referral hospital in Gorakhpur of eastern Uttar Pradesh, amid allegations that supply of oxygen to the neo-natal and encephalitis wards was cut over unpaid bills. A Central probe team rejected the allegation but it is still not clear how so many children died.
On August 11, 30 children largely suffering from encephalitis died at the hospital. The maximum deaths of 23 children happened between August 10 and 11. Gorakhpur District Magistrate Rajeev Rautela told the media that 30 children had died at the hospital due to disruption in oxygen supply.
Government officials and the Ministers visiting the hospital, however, immediately denied there was any shortage of oxygen supply and said many of the deaths were due to “other medical reasons.”
On August 13, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who had been representing Gorakhpur in Parliament for a long time, visited the hospital with Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda and reiterated that the deaths were not because of shortage of oxygen.
Why so many encephalitis deaths?
Gorakhpur has a long history of children dying of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) and Japanese Encephalitis (JE). According to an estimate, over 25,000 children have died due to this killer disease since 1978. Mr. Adityanath had raised the issue in Parliament several times. “We’ve managed to tame JE to a large extent but are yet not successful in tackling AES... My fight against AES in Gorakhpur is two decades old,” he said, blaming the spread of the disease on “unhygienic lifestyle and uncleanliness.”
How could it have been averted?
It is not clear how the deaths could have been averted if the supply of oxygen had been maintained. The supplier, Pushpa Sales, had been asking the hospital as well as medical officials to “ensure payment of dues, which had gone up to over ₹55 lakh, so that it could continue to supply oxygen to the hospital.” The firm had also warned the authorities that due to non-payment of dues “it would be unable to supply oxygen and the entire responsibility for the lack of oxygen would fall upon the medical college.” Pushpa Sales also questioned why only 50-60 oxygen cylinders were available at the hospital on August 10 and 11 when the norm is to have 350-400 filled cylinders at any given point of time. The college principal, R.K. Mishra, countered that he had been requesting Health Department officials for funds, but to no avail. However, government officials said they had released the payment. And, so the blame game continued till the hospital began to count the dead — 30 children in just 24 hours on August 10 and 11.
Have some steps been taken?
Dr. Mishra was transferred, though he said he resigned from his post taking moral responsibility. Dr. Kafeel Khan, in-charge of the paediatrics and encephalitis wards, was also shifted for “negligence.” A high-power committee has been set up under the Chief Secretary to probe the incident.
After the incident, the supply of oxygen was restored and a three-member team of doctors from the Centre arrived to “support the staff in tackling AES.” All the damp and grubby spaces in the hospital were cleaned up. However, as one young doctor explained, “it’s an overburdened hospital...to minimise deaths more doctors, infrastructure and supporting staff will be needed.”