On the frontline of India’s encephalitis war
Over the past month, we have been reporting on the deaths of hundreds of people in a fresh outbreak of encephalitis, in the northern town of Gorakhpur.
But death stalks the children of this chaotic border town in Uttar Pradesh unfailingly every monsoon. And for nearly four decades, Komal Prasad Kushwaha, a bespectacled and soft-spoken doctor, has seen hundreds of children die under his watch.
As a senior paediatrician at the Baba Raghav Das Medical College, Dr Kushwaha has been on the frontline of a decades-old battle against encephalitis, which has claimed some 6,000 lives at his hospital alone since 1978.
Horror stories are nothing new to Gorakhpur. In one case in 2007, local police picked up a dairy farmer and owner of a blood farm - “a ruthless modern-day vampire”, according to one account - who locked up men and extracted blood to sell it in the black market.
But it is encephalitis that has been the leitmotif of Gorakhpur’s unending misery.
Winter is upon Gorakhpur, but children are still dying of the disease. More than 500 have died at Dr Kushwaha’s hospital in the past few months and “two to three are still dying every day”.
“In the early days, the children would simply die because we lacked basic equipment,” Dr Kushwaha says.
“There were no catheters, no central oxygen supply. We had to manually cart oxygen cylinders to the ward, and it would be too late sometimes.
“Half the kids who came in would die. I remember we used to ask how many children we can save - it was like a competition among the doctors. If no child died during my duty hours, I would feel ecstatic.”
Dr Kushwaha is one of India’s leading authorities on breast feeding and could work anywhere. So why stay on?
“Many a time I have thought of leaving my job,” he tells me another day. “But here I at least manage to save some life. We have halved the mortality rate due to encephalitis in my hospital. It’s a tough battle, but it has to be fought.”
“These children have no hope in hell if they go to private hospitals. They won’t be admitted there because they can’t afford the treatment. If people like me don’t stay on here, more children will die.”
So Dr Kushwaha stays on and fights with his fellow doctors to save the lives of the children in Gorakhpur.