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Encephalitis Survivors Face The Risk Of Becoming Disabled

If it doesn't kill its child victims, it leaves them maimed, paralysed and in a semi-comatose state. And perhaps nowhere is the tragedy of Japanese encephalitis as stark as in this forgotten area where the latest bout of// the disease has killed hundreds.

"Encephalitis kills, but even the survivors are rarely able to lead a completely normal life," admits Dr. K.P. Kushwaha of the Gorakhpur Medical College in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the nerve centre of treatment of the brain fever that has killed 620 people in the state since the end of July.

And that is just the official figure. Unofficial tolls put the number of dead as much higher, with some doctors being reported as saying that thousands had died in the fever.

In the Gorakhpur hospital alone, about 450 children have died of the mosquito borne disease in 40 days.

It hasn't spared the living either.

The wards are packed with children - 380 as against a capacity of only 150 - staring vacantly as they struggle to survive.

Eight-year old Himalaya was admitted to the specially created encephalitis unit, headed by paediatrics professor Kushwaha, about 29 days ago. The drips and life support systems were removed after 20 days.

But the child, who has been reduced to bare bones, is apparently unaware of the world around him.

"Yes, some mental faculties are bound to have got affected and that is why he does not seem to respond. Our focus was on saving his life and there is not much we can do about the impairment," says Dr Bhupendra Sharma, who supervises the ward, helplessly.

There are others like Himalaya.

Harinder was brought to the medical college from Kushinagar about 10 days ago. "He is out of danger, but it is difficult to say when he would become normal," says Sharma.

Likewise, there is little hope that six-year-old Izhar will ever live a normal life. After 24 days in hospital, he has survived the di sease but lost out on life.

"His posture remains abnormal while all locomotive abilities are numb. We are doing whatever is humanly possible, the rest is up to god," says staff nurse Reena Pandey.

The list is long and dismal as authorities struggle to cope with an outbreak of a disease that is easily preventable with a vaccine, and comes back with alarming regularity. Always leaving behind survivors who can't tell the tale of official apathy.

In 2004, the perennially dominant virus - at least for the past 27 years - killed 225 people.

One of those who survived was four-year-old Abhishek, reduced to a vegetative state where he can neither sit, nor move, nor talk.

"The doctors at the Gorakhpur hospital did save his life, but it has been one year and Abhishek is virtually living the life of a vegetable," says his uncle Om Prakash, a labourer in this village on the Gorakhpur-Kushinagar highway.

Abhishek's father and Om Prakash work in turns to ensure that there is always somebody to look after the child as his mother has two other children to attend to.

"We take him periodically to the medical college, but there has been very little improvement. We are also trying to follow physiotherapy as advised by the doctors in the hope that one day he will be able to stand on his own feet."

Whether he can actually do that is a question that even doctors cannot answer. "It is a very unfortunate situation and there is little that we can do about it," said Kushwaha.

So, how many more Abhisheks and Himalayas will Uttar Pradesh have to see before it clamps down a disease that can so easily be prevented? The answer is awaited by the hundreds of children who have survived, but haven't really lived to see another day.


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