Chronicle of a Death Foretold: Japanese Encephalitis

The death toll due to the rogue Japanese Encephalitis Virus continues to rise in North Bengal. According to the latest government estimates 95 deaths have been recorded at North Bengal Medical College in July alone. This amounts to 169 deaths in North Bengal in July counting in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Bihar. The cumulative death toll from January stands at 214. After surfacing on the news the 'epidemic' has triggered widespread panic and anger against the government for failing to face up to the situation. 

The health administration could have controlled the situation at several checkpoints. Its first failure was the delay in recognizing the rising trend of Jap Encephalitis virus deaths since January till almost July. The 'epidemic' had peaked before it was recognized even though it gave the health system a six month warning. Yet Japanese Encephalitis is a notifiable disease and the risks should have been apparent from health records. 

The second failure was taking appropriate preventive measures including control of the mosquito vectors, dislocating pigsties to a safe distance from residences, generating public awareness and immunization. Several districts of West Bengal are already included in the JE vaccination programme and the means of prevention were easily at hand. There are also national programmes for mosquito control, the lack of implementation of which have allowed the high density of culex mosquitoes needed for the disease to spread. 

The third level of failure was in responding to the situation with adequate medical personnel and supplies. The state is already short of 2300 doctors. The government's attempt to deny its responsibility by sacking local health administrators was a counterproductive gimmick. It is now trying to dilute the entire issue by claiming that the situation is completely "under control". Even on the 30th of July, 5 more patients died in NBMC. It would be better if the government invested its limited energies more effectively in actually controlling the situation instead of perpetrating false reassurances. 

The SFI demands that the state government accepts the realities, faces up to its responsibility to the people, and reacts appropriately and immediately.