- 30 children die in 48 hours in hospital in Gorakhpur
- Hospital employees warned that oxygen supply was running low
- Officials say alternative arrangements were made
On Thursday morning, hospital employees who handle the storage plant at the hospital from where oxygen is piped to different wards, wrote a letter (accessed by NDTV) to the Chief Medical Officer informing him that the stock of liquid oxygen was dangerously low and would not last the night.
The operators pleaded with the authorities to act urgently and save the lives of the patients. This was their second letter; the first sent a week earlier had remained unanswered.
So the 30 children who died this week would have disappeared into that number, causing no alarm except to their families. But for the fact that by Thursday night, the supply of liquid oxygen to the trauma centre, encephalitis wards, as also to the Intensive Care Unit for newborns of Eastern Uttar Pradesh's second-largest hospital had been discontinued in protest against the vendor's bill not being paid.
Most of the deaths took place in the section for neo-natal emergency care. Although officials at the hospital and a BJP lawmaker from the area, Kamlesh Paswan, say alternative arrangements were made immediately.
What has gone largely unreported so far is that 18 adults also died during the same period in the same wards.
"The local media had been warning the BRD College authorities that a tragedy was waiting to unfold after Pushpa Sales, the company providing liquid oxygen to the hospital, threatened to stop the supply due to non-payment of outstanding dues totalling 63.65 lakhs," says local journalist Manoj Singh. "If so, was there no clause in the contract signed between the company and the BRD Medical College which prevented them from taking such a step during the peak epidemic season?"
Pushpa Sales is believed to have last written to the hospital's management on August 1 to pay up, but reportedly did not get any response.
After the body count started rising alarmingly and the local media began gathering outside the medical college by Thursday night demanding answers, Rajeev Rautela, the District Magistrate of Gorakhpur, addressed reporters.
He claimed that the deaths of the 30 children, 17 in the neo-natal ward, 5 in AES ward and 8 in the general ward were due medical reasons and not linked to the availability of liquid oxygen. Although he accepted that its supply had been stopped over unpaid bills, Mr Rautela insisted that the hospital had more than 50 oxygen cylinders in stock to cope with any crisis and was in the process of getting upto another 150.
It was as recently as Wednesday that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the head of the Gorakhnath temple and five-time MP from here, had reviewed conditions at the hospital. He is believed to have inspected the paediatric ward, visited children infected with the encephalitis virus and inaugurated a new intensive and critical care unit.
But the hospital was crammed with problems.
Staff manning the encephalitis wards received their salaries in the last two days after a 5-month delay.
While in the neo-natal department, salaries have not been paid for the last six months.
"Today, there is such an acute shortage of staff in the Hospital that there is just one doctor attending to 40 children," say Rajesh Mani whose organization, a non-profit named Manav Sewa Sansthan, has been working for the prevention of encephalitis for several years in the Gorakhpur region.
A few months before Uttar Pradesh voted, Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed to setting up a new AIIMS in Gorakhpur with an estimated cost of 1,700 crores. The BJP has been projecting the plan as a major intervention in the battle against Japanese Encephalitis and Acute Encephalitis Syndrome.
But Mr Mani claims that no government has been serious about the issue.
"When the Samajwadi Party was in power, they opened 100 treatment centres in the disease-prone villages to reduce the burden on the hospitals, but they have remained non-starters," said Mr Mani.
In December 2014, the National Human Rights Commission summoned senior state health officials including then Health Secretary Arvind Kumar, who is now the Principal Secretary or a senior bureaucrat in the state, and asked for a report on how to prevent Japanese Encephalitis (JE) and AES (Acute Encephalitis Syndrome) and how it is heat handled when patients are hospitalised and then in recovery. More than two years later, the report has still not been submitted to the country's top human rights body.
The government has promised a swift investigation, harsh punishment of those found guilty; the opposition is demanding the resignation of Health Minister Sidharth Nath Singh as well as the Chief Minister. In a region where encephalitis, for all its dangers, is treated as a recurring annual feature by those in charge , with few signs of urgent care to basic health facilities, the odds were against the families of the children who are lost.