The death of 67 Amarnath pilgrims, mostly due to cardiac arrest, in just 17 days of the yatra to the holy cave in south Kashmir Himalayas has left the Board managing the pilgrimage worried and it has asked authorities to address all health-related issues.
Although 105 persons died during the 45-day yatra last year which was highest due to natural causes, the high number of deaths in the first two weeks of the pilgrimage this year has the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which is headed by Governor N N Vohra, worried.
"As many as 67 yatris died during the ongoing pilgrimage, mostly due to cardiac arrest, during the first 17 days," an official of the Shrine Board said.
Cardiac arrest caused by rarefied oxygen at high altitude has been one of the most common natural causes of death among the pilgrims.
Officials of the state Health Department, which is running dozens of medical camps along the twin yatra routes, said in many cases the pilgrims were found to be in possession of fake fitness certificates.
"We have seen cases where some people are suffering from diabetes and respiratory problems. This is not a place for them to come but we cannot stop them as they come with fitness certificates issued by medical practitioners," an official of the Health Department said.
The official said the mounting death toll of the pilgrims prompted Mr Vohra, who is chairman of the SASB, to direct all authorities to take steps to address health-related issues.
The Governor has already convened two emergency meetings on pilgrim deaths since the 39-day annual pilgrimage to the shrine housing the naturally formed ice-shivlingam commenced on June 25 from the twin tracks of Pahalgam in Anantnag district and Baltal in Ganderbal district.
The yatra will end on August 2, coinciding with Raksha Bandhan.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who is facing lot questions over the issue on his Twitter account, attributed the deaths to old age, poor fitness and lack of acclimatization.
"It (is) on account of age, poor fitness and lack of any acclimatisation," Omar wrote on twitter.com.
Chief Executive Officer of the SASB N K Chaudhury said while the high number of deaths was a matter of concern, he was not in a position to comment on the issue. "Please talk to the Health Department," he said.
There has been an unprecedented rush to the Amarnath cave this year as more than four lakh pilgrims have so far paid obeisance at the shrine.
According to SASB, over 4.5 lakh pilgrims have registered for the yatra. Many unregistered pilgrims have also made way to the yatra. The SASB has opened six on-the-spot registration counters for such pilgrims.
Besides the state government, Army and paramilitary forces like CRPF and BSF have also chipped in by setting up a well-knit network of medical camps, which are functional round-the-clock along the two routes and have treated thousands of pilgrims.
The SASB has directed all camp directors to use the public address system to urge yatris to immediately contact the nearest health camp and take help in case they felt any kind of uneasiness or illness.
The healthcare facilities have been further augmented and over 1000 oxygen cylinders have been made available on the two routes to the shrine by the state Health Department.
"This was in addition to the oxygen cylinders available in the health camps established by the Army, paramilitary forces and NGOs," SASB officials said, adding oxygen-metres have also been made available at various locations to check oxygen levels of the yatris reporting at the health camps.
Additional specialist doctors have been deployed at the base camps and at critical places like Brarimarg, Sangam, Pissu top, Zojibal, Nagakoti to attend to the seriously ill patients.
Various steps have also been taken to improve arrangements for shifting of critical patients to the base camps and, thereafter, to the identified hospitals in Srinagar for prompt and appropriate treatment.
CRPF spokesman Sudhir Kumar said the force has set up various free medical camps including Cardiac Care Unit and Mobile medical camps for saving the lives of yatris on both routes.
Establishment of Special Cardiac Care Unit at Baltal has been introduced for the first time this year.
"Various high-end equipment like nebuliser, laryngo scope, ambu bag, ET tube, CPR Mask, defibrillator, patient monitoring system, suction system, advanced oxygen concentrators and emergency drugs, are kept available at the Cardiac Care Unit," the spokesman said.
Mr Kumar said over 32, 000 pilgrims were given medical aid in the eight camps along Pahalgam track and three camps on Baltal route.