Children deaths in Gorakhpur: A dissolving faith, an enduring mystery

Japanese EncephalitisUntil the mid-2000s, it was JE that was considered the annual mysterious killer of children and early teens in the Purvanchal belt of eastern UP and Bihar. Now, a decade later, it has been crossed off as a “minority disease” by scientists.

In Gorakhpur, small successes in understanding — and conquering — the killer disease of children are undercut by a wily virus and administrative bottlenecks

On August 18, five-year-old Vishal spent the evening playing with friends in Vanjhai village in Gorakhpur district's Bhathat block. He came home irritable, with a slight fever. His mother and grandmother gave him a little milk and sent him to bed. They were not worried, because Vishal, like most children in the village, was "protected". What's ailing the Bihar's children?

Three years ago, Vishal had been given two shots, separated by four months, of "jhatki teeka", or the Japanese Encephalitis (JE) vaccine. The first shot, given in August 2010, was part of the child's immunization schedule; the second, in December of that year, in a massive campaign across Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bihar, to ensure the vaccine reached all "left out" children. 1,600 children dead in UP, Bihar; no answers yet

Vishal's mother, who had seen children dying in their village during the monsoon — deaths long attributed to the dreaded JE virus — was assured that her son was protected.

So, when Vishal woke up the next morning with a jhatki — convulsions with a yellowish frothing at the mouth, fists clenched and eyes shut tight, seemingly unable to hear his mother's cries — the family went to the local fakir, hoping he would rid the boy of the spirits they believed had attacked him.

A day later, when Vishal was struck by another convulsion, his uncle took him on his motorcycle 15 km away to Gorakhpur town, ignoring the women's protests that he already had "jaadui" protection and needed no more medicines. The boy was admitted to the Nehru Hospital in BRD Medical College, where he died the next day.

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