Virus kills at least 100 West Bengal children

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2003, 12:00am

Hundreds more are sick, as a mystery disease ravages villages

More than 100 children are feared dead from a mysterious disease spreading in a remote part of communist-ruled West Bengal state.

The disease, which has struck five villages in the rural Murshidabad district, results in high fever, respiratory problems, vomiting and convulsions, say government doctors who are battling the epidemic. All the victims are between two and five-years-old.

Adhir Chowdhury, an MP from Murshidabad who belongs to the opposition Congress Party, said the death toll had topped 100 and more than 300 children were battling for their lives.

The state government has confirmed only 31 deaths so far. But the official casualty figures are being questioned even by doctors, who accuse the government of trying to cover up the crisis.

'Medical teams and specialists have reached the affected areas and are taking blood samples from the sick children and examining them to get a better idea of the killer disease,' said Murshidabad's chief administrator, Manoj Pant.

Mr Pant said the deaths might have been caused by a water-borne viral infection spread via untreated drinking water.

Mr Chowdhury said that tempers were running high among parents - mostly poor Muslim peasants and labourers - keeping vigil at ill-equipped health centres where the sick children are undergoing treatment. He said there was an acute shortage of medicine and trained personnel to cope with the outbreak.

Mr Chowdhury has warned that public anger could boil over if the administration fails to stop the disease spreading to neighbouring villages. The affected area is predominantly Muslim and one of the poorest in Bengal, where the communists have ruled since 1977.

State Health Secretary Asim Burman said they hoped to identify the cause of the deaths after teams from the School of Tropical Medicine and the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases submit reported to the government.

Mr Burman said that besides the two teams, Health Services director Prabhakar Chatterjee had been sent to supervise the efforts of doctors working around the clock. 'Three thousand children had been released after checkups. We are trying to do our best. We have nothing to hide,' Mr Burman said.

Twenty children died within a few hours last September when a state-run hospital in Calcutta ran out of oxygen cylinders, sparking a row between the government and the opposition. At the same hospital, nearly 150 babies died from blood poisoning in three months.

Most state-run hospitals are overcrowded and poorly equipped, triggering a boom in private medical care in recent years.