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Encephalitis Kills 79 Children in India

An outbreak of mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis has killed at least 79 children in a north Indian state over the past week, with dozens of other children in serious condition, officials said Thursday, reported AP.

Local newspapers reported that the death toll could be much higher, as many casualties were going unreported.

"The government is talking about the death of children in government hospitals. What about the children who died in private nursing homes or in villages without medicines?" asked Dr. Radha Mohan Agarwal, an opposition lawmaker and a leading pediatrician in Gorakhpur, the largest city in the worst-affected eastern flank of Uttar Pradesh state.

Japanese encephalitis, which often hits children, is caused by a mosquito-borne virus that attacks the brain. Symptoms of the disease start with a very high fever, followed by seizures, vomiting, then vomiting of blood. Eventually, victims can fall into a coma. Behavioral changes and delirium also often occur.

"I can officially confirm the death of 79 children from encephalitis. At least 182 children are admitted in different government hospitals," O.P. Singh, the state director-general of health, said by telephone from Gorakhpur, 155 miles southeast of Lucknow, the state capital. More than 100 more children are in serious condition, he said.

Most of the affected children are from poor families, local doctors said.

"The government hospitals are full of children suffering from encephalitis. Nine children died overnight and the number is increasing," said Lalit Saxena, a doctor at Gorakhpur's government hospital. "Parents of these children are poor. ... They do not have enough money for treatment."

Encephalitis kills dozens of people each year in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, where health services are poor. According to official estimates, about 3,500 people have died of encephalitis in the state over the past 25 years.

The best solution is vaccination, but state health authorities say there isn't enough money to protect all children in the encephalitis-prone areas.

"We do not have the funds. We had a target to vaccinate 7 million children up to the age of 10, but we could vaccinate only 200,000 children," said Singh, the health chief. The government is now seeking the help of UNICEF and the World Health Organization to help meet the target, he said.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies August 19, 2005)

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