The deaths of 61 children due to an outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis in Odisha’s Malkangiri district brings home the gaps that lie in the health care system in large parts of rural India. Over 100 villages across seven blocks in this region have been hit and unofficial reports are that the number of children who have died is much higher than 61.
Japanese Encephalitis, which affects mostly children, derives from pigs and spreads to humans through mosquitoes. The population in this part of Odisha is especially vulnerable as people here depend on pigs for livelihood.
There was an outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis in 2012 as well that led to many deaths. Despite that, the community remains unaware of the dangers of rearing pigs so close to their homes. The administration has also failed to carry out door-to-door monitoring for fever and monitoring.
The apathy is even more shocking when one looks at the data. Malkangiri ranks among India’s top 15 districts when it comes to child wasting, stunting and underweight. One-third of children here below five years of age suffer from wasting, stunting and underweight, mainly due to under nutrition.
The infant mortality rate is reported to be 48 as against Odisha’s average of 56, while the maternal mortality rate is 245 as against the state average of 230.
Given the prevalence of so many red flags, it is shocking how poor the health system on the ground is. Malkangiri district has only one pediatrician while the community healthcare centre at Korkunda, the most affected area, has no doctors. In all, 2,000 posts for doctors are lying vacant in the state.
Reports are that vaccinations are very rarely given even if the government has declared a program. Vaccination for JE in India was launched in 2013, but Odisha is yet to receive it share. According to the government’s reports, less than one-third of Malkangiri’s population is covered under the immunization programme.
Regions like Malkangiri show how far we are from providing equitable development across India. Unless steps are taken to strengthen healthcare infrastructure and enable the poor to take care of the nutritional needs of their children, routine epidemics will continue to take away lives.