In an exclusive interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan admitted that a lot needs to be done to combat the encephalitis outbreak in Bihar. He, however, assured that he is personally monitoring the situation in the state even as the death toll from encephalitis deaths reached 128 in Muzaffarpur.
As the death toll in the encephalitis outbreak in Bihar continues to rise, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan admitted that many improvements need to be made to India’s health system.
In an exclusive interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, Harsh Vardhan said, “There is certainly a need for a lot of improvement in the health system of the country. In the past five years, we have been trying to do our best to systematically strengthen the system in the country but I think there is a lot to be done.”
The death toll due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) rose to 128 in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district on Wednesday. Amid growing criticism over governmental inaction, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan had issued directions for immediately sending a high-level team to Muzaffarpur to set up a state-of-the-art multi-disciplinary research centre in the wake of these deaths.
Harsh Vardhan also said five virological labs will be set up in different districts in the state. The districts can be decided in consultation with the state government and can be funded through the National Health Mission (NHM), he said.
In one of the decisions taken during his visit, Vardhan instructed to set up a 100-bed paediatric ICU at SKMCH. Also, in the adjoining districts, 10-bed paediatric ICUs will be set up with support from the Centre, so that such cases can be given better and exclusive treatment and there is no unnecessary load on the facilities available at Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH) in Muzaffarpur.
He had made similar suggestions when the Narendra Modi government first came to power in 2014.
When asked about why the Modi government failed to deliver on its 2014 promises, the health minister give a list of work that was in progress. “Let me tell you, super speciality building in the college will be ready by year-end. It will be dedicated to people of Muzaffarpur and those from adjoining districts. I myself visited the site this weekend. As far as the pediatric ICU is concerned, I had suggested there should be exclusive pediatric ICU separate from the main hospital setup but they created ICU within the hospital.”
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Harsh Vardhan said his 2014 suggestions were not fully implemented as he was health minister for only four-five months then. The Union minister agreed things need to be improved further, “We need to ensure 100 per cent immunisation of children, we are proactively bringing many children into the net of immunisation but India being a large country we need to go ahead at a fast manner. You have seen the initial impact of Ayushmann Bharat. We have the ambitious plan to build 1.5 lakh health and wellness centres at primary level, out of which 18,000 have been created.”
However, Harsh Vardhan admitted that expenditure on health in India needs to increase. “There is an ambitious plan to increase the health budget to 2.5 per cent (from the current 1.5 per cent) of the total Union budget. Personally, as a doctor, I wish I could get much more,” said Harsh Vardhan.
The spread of encephalitis in Bihar has been attributed to malnutrition. Unripe litchi fruit contains a high concentration of the toxin called MCPG which triggers hypoglycemia if consumed by a child with a malnourished body. Therein lies the answer to the question: why only the poorest of the poor and mostly those living in Muzaffarpur and adjoining districts are suffering from the disease.
Harsh Vardhan said that the Modi government has diagnosed the problems in the system and hopes to eradicate them by 2022. “When we took over in 2014, under the leadership of PM Modi we tried to diagnose each and every problem in the country. A lot has been done and a lot needs to be done and we are very hopeful that in the new India that we are talking about in 2022, you will see a lot of perceptible and measurable changes in the country,” said Harsh Vardhan.
However, the minister was not able to give a clear answer on whether the NDA government in Bihar or CM Nitish Kumar should be held accountable for the encephalitis outbreak. “You have to appreciate that this disease has not been eradicated anywhere in the world. It is endemic to this part of the country. This is not happening only here,” he said.
When questioned on how the UP government had managed to control the encephalitis outbreak in the state but Bihar had failed, Harsh Vardhan said that he was doing his best to improve the situation and was monitoring it closely. “I can only tell you that we are trying to do our best. I have sent one of my joint secretaries there [to Muzaffarpur], have sent all possible help — paediatricians, virologists, epidemiologists. From our side, we have ensured that whatever gap exists is filled. I was only four-five days old in this ministry, but I sent a high-powered team there. Every day I am monitoring things on an hourly basis and the teams are reporting to me directly.”
Finally, when asked if he could give a guarantee that such a grim scenario would not be seen in Bihar next year, Harsh Vardhan said, “I can only give you one guarantee that Dr Harsh Vardhan will personally monitor the implementation of all the suggestions that he gave in 2019. I will do my best and I will put my heart and soul into it.”