As the toll due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) rose to 114 in Muzaffarpur district, the Bihar government has ordered a socio-economic survey of over 450 people whose children have either been affected by or died of the disease.
State Chief Secretary Deepak Kumar has directed Jeevika workers to conduct the survey days after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said that a socio-economic survey of the families affected and the sanitation status of the AES-hit areas could help find a long-term solution to the disease. Saraiya, Minapur, Mushahari and Kanti are worst AES-hit blocks of Muzaffarpur district.
At Ground Zero in Muzaffarpur, The Indian Express found that families battling the outbreak are struggling to cope — from a seven-year-old who died en route to a bigger hospital too far away to a father looking for daily-wage work to feed his family after his son died and from a family unable to get subsidised ration to dozens totally unaware of the lurking danger that AES poses.
In Jagarnathpur Dok under the Saraiya block of Muzaffarpur are the homes of around 50 Mahadalits. As Raj Kishore Ram (40) tries to come to terms with his four-year-old son Subodh’s death due to AES a fortnight ago, he says finding a job is still his priority.
“I have three more children and my wife to feed. After my son died, some people advised us to eat four meals a day, but I can barely manage two,” he says, running his palm across his shaven head to remember his lost child. Ram has a ration card which brings home 15 kg wheat, 20 kg rice and 1.5 litres of kerosene every month at a subsidised rate, but it’s barely enough.
“When my wife tried to wake up our son, he was shaking without fever. As we noticed the seizures, we took him to SK Medical College and Hospital, Muzaffarpur. After being admitted for two days, he died… We cannot blame the government, we have fate and God to blame for making us poor,” said Ram.
The family has no cultivable land and Ram barely works for 15 days a month. According to his wife Gudiya, their children attend government schools, where they get midday meals.
A few kilometres away at Shivuri Bahilbara village, Birendra Sahni (50) said he lost his three-year-old Raja Babu to the same disease. A daily wager in Gujarat, Sahni earns Rs 300 per day. “I had to move out of here four years ago as I was not able to find enough work,” he says. Though his family has a ration card, they haven’t received any grain or kerosene oil for the last four years, he says.
According to Shivuri Bahilbara residents, there was no AES awareness campaign before June. “It is only after the death of several children that an awareness campaign was conducted here last week. Birendra’s family was only given some ORS packets,” said Ramnath Sahni.
Saraiya Block Development Officer (BDO) B N Singh, who visited the village Wednesday, pulled up health workers for not carrying out an AES awareness campaign before the outbreak. “The duty of the awareness team is to bring suspected AES patients to the primary healthcare centre,” he said.
The Saraiya Community Health Centre has received some suspected AES cases and one confirmed case, and they were all referred to SKMCH in Muzaffarpur.
In the neighbouring Kanti block, Poonam Devi from Dariyapur said: “I lost my seven-year-old son Roshan because the Kanti Primary Health Centre had no doctor in the morning shift. By the time I rushed to the Muzaffarpur hospital, his condition worsened.” Poonam’s family has no land and her husband works for daily wages.