The Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has ordered all stops be removed for 100 percent immunization of children in select districts of the states affected by annual visitations of two deadly strains of Encephalitis. The impulse has come from the death of 44 children in six districts of Bihar over the past fortnight but the Minister is concerned over the annual death toll in adjoining eastern Uttar Pradesh as well which is in the 500-600 range.
Dr Harsh Vardhan said that “I am extremely distressed at the runaway conquest of encephalitis and it is high time extraordinary steps were taken to stymie it. I have asked the Ministry’s officials to work in tandem with their counterparts in the states to identify the most vulnerable districts within a day and the actual immunization will take place over June 22 and 23.”
The high level meeting was attended by Shri Upendra Kushwaha, Union Minister of State for Rural Development, former Health Minister of Bihar, Shri Ashwini Choubey, Mahant Adityanath, Member of Parliament from Gorakhpur, Shri Ram Kumar Sharma, Member of Parliament from Sitamarhi, health officials from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and the Centre, and scientists.
The Minister asked officials to collect the synergy of all stakeholders. “I don’t want this to be a purely government exercise. We must involve the voluntary sector, Indian Medical Association, religious organizations doing social work, even school children, to ensure that all children are brought to the immunization centres”, Dr Harsh Vardhan said.
He stressed on the need for surveillance also. The ultimate objective is to prevent the disease occurrence by early diagnosis, implementation of effective control measures, and high vaccine coverage with strong and active surveillance system, the Health Minister said. The Health Minister made it clear that the drive to eradicate encephalitis should replicate the Pulse Polio campaign which he pioneered as Delhi’s health minister in 1994. Later it was spread on a national scale, eventually leading to India being declared “polio free” in January 2014, he said.
Dr Harsh Vardhan said, “I am giving full authority to all concerned to go on the overdrive. We must have a total immunization campaign for encephalitis in the affected districts.” Aware that the drive against Encephalitis would involve perse medical professionals like paediatricians, neurologists, paramedics, ambulance drivers as well as installing adequate infrastructure, he asked officials of the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme to implement the programme efficiently.
While Japanese Encephalitis (JE) is responsible for about 10 percent of the fatalities, the more dreaded Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) represents a far greater challenge as its causes are still debated. The Minister was apprised of numerous local bottlenecks and he reacted with firmness against bureaucratic delays. A Virology Centre in Muzzafarpur district of Bihar is unavoidable and the Ministry will assist in setting it up, the Minister said. Dedicated beds for encephalitis victims must be set up in all hospitals in the districts seeing annual visitations of encephalitis, he directed. The Ministry has provided 100 ventilator machines to Gorakhpur for setting up a patients’ Intensive Care Unit. He ordered that these should be made functional within three days of the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding with the state government.
Dr Harsh Vardhan said that since Encephalitis strikes mostly during the hot summer months, it is important to put in place an early warning system. “I have asked the officials of UP and Bihar to approach the Natural Resources Defence Council and the Indian Institute of Public Health to replicate the early warning system installed in Ahmedabad. I think it is noteworthy that the Government of Gujarat gets support from local health and environmental groups to prepare local communities to the onset of extreme heat so that they can take all the necessary small steps to protect themselves. My Ministry will be happy to extend all possible assistance to put in place a preparedness plan”, he informed.
The Minister said he would confabulate with scientists of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta to discuss and exchange ideas on diagnosis, treatment and surveillance very soon. “Apart from the immunization campaign, I will dedicate resources of the Ministry to research on Encephalitis. We have to get to the cause and then evolve into a world knowledge provider on encephalitis because many other countries are hit by this disease,” Dr Harsh Vardhan added