At least 211 people, most of them children, have died in an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis in an impoverished region of northern India and the death toll is likely to soar, officials said yesterday.
“Most of the deaths have occurred in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh State since the monsoon struck the region in July,” regional health officer U.K. Srivastava said by telephone.
Eastern parts of the state have in the past been ravaged by Japanese encephalitis as malnourished children succumbed to the virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes from pigs to humans.
The district health chief said the deaths of five more children on Friday pushed the toll to 211, with hundreds languishing, some two to a bed, in hospitals in Gorakhpur, a deeply neglected region of 14 million people.
“A total of 1,299 patients had been admitted in hospitals until Friday in Gorakhpur” which is the epicenter of the outbreak, Srivastava said.
“More encephalitis patients are coming into our hospitals today,” Srivastava said.
“We fear the total number of encephalitis cases will go up to at least 3,500 and the death rate will be at the same ratio of around 20 percent this year,” Srivastava said.
Japanese encephalitis causes brain inflammation and can result in brain damage. Symptoms include headaches, seizures and fever.
Health experts say 70 million children in India are at risk of encephalitis.
Unusually heavy monsoon rains coupled with overflowing rivers coursing through Gorakhpur are posing a challenge to health workers battling encephalitis.
“We have begun spraying insecticides to wipe out populations of the culex mosquitoes which transmit the disease and we are handing out chlorine to villagers to disinfect their drinking water supplies,” he said.
Mosquito-borne illnesses affect tens of thousands of Indians during the rainy season.