Outbreak of 'brain fever' in India's poorest state leaves 152 children dead

A mum holds her son at the government-run Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital in Muzaffarpur district.
It's believed 152 children have died following an outbreak of 'brain fever' in India.

The nation's highest court has ordered an investigation following the large number of deaths from what is said to be a 'completely curable' disease.

Youngsters are dying from Acute Encephalitis Syndrome which occurs when the brain becomes inflamed.

The deadly outbreak has occurred in Muzaffarpur in the eastern state of Bihar, an area which is currently experiencing a deadly heatwave.

Encephalitis is said to be triggered by dehydration and malnutrition and has also been linked to lychee fruit.

Reports vary as to the current death toll with some saying 152 while others estimate 122 and 129.

Bihar has some of the worst child health statistics anywhere in the world.

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A similar outbreak killed 350 children in Muzaffarpur in 2014, leading to questions about why the state and central governments had not done more to combat the disease.

A petition filed by activist-lawyer Manohar Pratap accused the government of 'inaction' and now an investigation has been ordered into both central and state governments.

"We issue notice to the Bihar government seeking a detailed response," said Justice Sanjiv Khanna, a Supreme Court judge, on Monday.

The petitions, known as public interest litigations, are a common way for citizens to pressure state and national governments into action.

A copy of the petition, seen by Reuters, said AES "is completely curable and lives of young children are being lost due to the inaction of the state machinery...

"Most of the deaths are occurring due to lack of medical facilities in the area of outbreak," the petition said.

On Monday, India's health ministry reiterated a promise first made in 2014 that it would open a 100-bed children's ward in the district.

India's leaders are coming under fire for their lack of response.

Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was accosted by angry parents when he visited the hospital for the first time last Tuesday, three weeks after the crisis began.

His health minister was criticised after he asked about the score in a cricket match between India and Pakistan during a televised meeting to discuss the outbreak.

On a visit to the district last week, several doctors told Reuters the deaths were preventable with basic treatment and education of those most at risk - a symbol of India's growing inequality.

The outbreak sparked a nationwide conversation about how the country treats its poorest.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made no public statement on the crisis, though his health minister Harsh Varadhan said the Indian leader is monitoring the situation.

India, the world's sixth largest economy, has its own space programme and major cities like New Delhi and Mumbai are home to world-class hospitals.

Those in Muzzafarpur, however, are in a poor condition, with frequent power cuts. At one hospital a Reuters reporter visited there was the stench of urine in the corridors and stray goats roaming its grounds.

Varadhan said the central government was providing "all possible support" to Bihar, while the state government has also defended its response to the crisis.

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Encephalitis SyndromeBrain freezeIndia