Encephalitis has claimed more than 570 lives, mostly infants and children, in several states this year as of now. With death toll on the rise, it has taken shape of a public health emergency necessitating urgent steps to control its spread. The disease in both its forms of acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) and Japanese encephalitis (JE) has, in fact, become endemic to more than five states with annual outbreaks claiming hundreds of lives. While Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the worst affected, West Bengal and Assam have posted an alarming surge this year, accounting for more than 250 deaths till date.
Encephalitis occurs as inflammation of the brain with very high fatality. AES is caused by a number of viruses while JE is primarily vector-borne. Children and elderly are more vulnerable to contracting the diseases which has high morbidity and mortality even surpassing malaria and dengue. The Union Health Ministry had launched a national programme for prevention and control of encephalitis in 2012-13 covering 60 endemic districts across UP, Bihar, Assam, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, which account for more than 85 percent of cases. Its implementation has been found seriously wanting even as encephalitis has spread to over 17 states and around 170 districts.
Union health minister Harsh Vardhan has been quick to pronounce encephalitis as the top public health priority. Emphasising on extraordinary steps to deal with the problem, he has avowed commitment to 100 percent immunisation for JE and support to states in sprucing up their medical infrastructure. Implementation should be on a war footing for, innocent young lives cannot be lost to preventable diseases. With only a year to go for the deadline to achieving the millennium development goals (MDG) on maternal and child health parameters, there is little time in hand.