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Doctors continue to fight encephalitis outbreak in India

Medics in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh continue to battle an outbreak of encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by a virus.

Over 500 people, mostly children, have died from the illness in the Gorakhpur area of the state since June. Though the rate of infections has slowed, at least one child per day is still being admitted to hospital with the illness which causes fever, headache and vomiting. In severe cases, those infected suffer from seizures, paralysis and death. Malnourished children from poor families are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the disease, which is a yearly threat in this part of India. Low-lying areas of the Gorakhpur region have standing water during the rainy season, which provides ideal conditions for the mosquitoes which spread the virus.

In a special follow-up report on the situation, the BBC has interviewed a senior doctor working in the town of Gorakhpur. Dr Kushwaha is a senior paediatrician at the Baba Gaghay Das Medical College and has worked at the hospital for over thirty years. During that time, encephalitis has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people at his facility. During the current epidemic, as in many previous years, the paediatrician has been battling to save the lives of countless children. Even with as much care as his team can provide, Dr Kushwaha tells the BBC that “two or three [children] are still dying every day”.

But though this year’s intense outbreak of encephalitis and high loss of life has caused great distress to Dr Kushwaha and his team, some good has come from the spotlight of the media attention. Despite a 14.3 billion grant in the past from the federal rural health mission, the hospital has lacked sufficient equipment to deal with the number of encephalitis patients. Though the hospital now has a central oxygen system to treat desperately ill children, ventilators have been lacking. Another 24 new ventilators are now promised by the state to add to the existing 21 machines. In addition, around 24,000 dollars will be spent on a new 100-bed hospital which will specialise in the care of children suffering from encephalitis. This will be built on the same site as the existing hospital and has been scheduled for next year.

Dr Kushwaha and his team are unable to save many of the infected children, some extremely sick by the time they are brought from remote villages. However, during his time at the hospital, the mortality rate has been halved. And with better drugs and a specialist treatment centre, Dr Kushwaha believes many more children can be saved in the future. “Even when everything looks hopeless”, he tells the BBC’s reporter, “you can never lose hope.”

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