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As many as 66 children have died due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar over the past few weeks, said media reports quoting officials.

For days the Bihar government had been denying the fact of the disease, claiming the deaths were caused by low blood sugar – hypoglycaemia. Bihar Minister of Health Mangal Pandey finally admitted that an outbreak of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) had caused the deaths of children, reported Down to Earth (DTE).

Earlier, Pandey had refuted the reports of children dying due to AES in Muzaffarpur and had claimed they had died due to hypoglycaemia. Pandey visited Muzaffarpur12 days after the initial reports of children dying from AES first filtered in on June 1 and 2.

Encephalitis is a viral disease, which causes mild flu-like symptoms such as high fever, convulsions and headaches.

A total of 55 patients died at Shri Krishna Medical College while 11 of them died in private Kejriwal hospital in Muzaffarpur. Till now over 130 have been hospitalised in the district.

District Magistrate of Muzaffarpur on Friday said that for students till class eight, schools will remain closed till June 22 and for students in higher standards, classes will be held only till 10.30 am.

The State government has announced that it will open a new 100-bed ward for children, and six additional ambulances would be deployed for the government-run Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH).

Bihar health minister Pandey had earlier gone to Delhi to meet Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan and other officials to discuss the death of children in Muzaffarpur.

“In the last 20-22 days, 57 children — 47 at SKMCH and ten at the privately-owned Kejriwal Maternity Hospital — have died due to AES…We are monitoring all this and have decided to make people aware of AES,” Mr. Pandey told local journalists in Muzaffarpur.

He added, “A team comprising one Professor, three Associate Professors, four Assistant Professors, nine Senior Resident Doctors and 15 Junior Resident Doctors, is monitoring the situation at SKMCH…encephalitis is a viral infection, which causes mild flu-like symptoms such as high fever, convulsions and headaches.”

Meanwhile, reported DTE, the central team visiting Muzaffarpur to inquire into the cause of children’s deaths, has reportedly said that most of the cases reported are due to encephalopathy.

The team has also advised SKMCH to take up research and concentrate on a regular follow-up of patients. There should be a separate research wing under the department of microbiology and pathology and serum samples of patients should be preserved for rechecking, it said.

The team recommended the bed strength of the paediatric ICY at SKMCH be increased from the existing 14 beds to 100.

The sudden epidemic has become a huge cause of concern for the state government with these deaths becoming an annual affair since 1995, said reports. The disease claimed a record 150 lives in 2014.Most children dying of the outbreak of AES belong to economically weaker sections of the society.

Litchi to blame?

Meanwhile, following intense coverage in international media over these deaths and the subsequent blame on the seasonal fruit litchi, the health department in Bihar has now advised families to not feed the fruit to their children in empty stomach in view of the disease assuming endemic proportions.

The authorities have also warned the families of not eat half-ripe or unripe litchis as a precautionary measure. Muzaffarpur is famous for its finest variety of litchi with May and June being the harvesting months for the fruit.

Waiting for rains

Everyone in the affected areas is now awaiting the arrival of the monsoon rains for the AES outbreak to subside.

“We are yet to know the exact reason behind the outbreak. Investigation and research will continue. But one thing is certain: the disease is usually controlled only after the arrival of monsoon rains,” said Gopal Shankar Sahni, head of the paediatrics department at SKMCH.

Sahni was supported by regional additional health director, Ashok Kumar Singh. “The three Hs — heatwave, humidity and hypoglycaemia — are causing the deaths of children, who are suffering from symptoms akin to AES. Rains will reduce the effects of the disease. It has happened in the past too,” Singh said.

But officials of the India Meteorological Department, Patna, said there was little chance of the monsoon entering Bihar this week. “The monsoon’s arrival will be delayed by 10 days,” an official said.

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