MUZAFFARPUR, Bihar — As the piercing sound of a heartbeat flatlining filled the children’s intensive care unit of a government hospital in Bihar, doctors and nurses fell silent.
Many of them had heard it far too often over the past few days, but that didn’t take away from the sadness and regret they felt.
This time, the sound marked the death of Khushi, a three-year-old with a shock of unruly hair, from AES (Acute Encephalitis Syndrome), a deadly inflammation of the brain that kills hundreds of children in India every year.
Her mother, a thin woman in a green sari, let out a wail as she clasped her daughter’s small frame, entangled in gauze and tubes. Her father, a frail man with sunken eyes, did not make a sound as he squatted near the foot of the bed, which his daughter had been sharing with a girl named Julie.
There are only 34 beds for AES-hit children at the Shree Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH) in Muzaffarpur, around 90km from Patna.
Gasping between sobs, Sunita Devi, in her early 20s, said, “She was playing last night. The seizures started in the morning, and now she is gone. She is gone in a few hours.”
More than 100 children have died in Muzaffarpur district, the epicentre of AES or “chamki bukhaar” (brain fever), widespread in poor communities that don’t have access to nutritious food and sanitation. Apart from Khushi, at least 82 other children have died just in SKMCH this summer.
AES kills children in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh every year, but long heat spells and humidity make some years worse than others.
This is the deadliest AES outbreak in Bihar since 2014, when 355 children died—117 at SKMCH alone.
Now that the national media has turned its attention to the hundreds of AES-related deaths in Bihar, the Nitish Kumar government is scrambling to save face, and failing.
The government’s unpreparedness can...