AES outbreak: This is not the first time Harsh Vardhan promised Muzaffarpur virology lab

He made the same claim five years ago, but nothing has happened

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Tuesday 18 June 2019
Muzaffarpur alone has seen more than 100 AES deaths. __

Union health and family welfare minister Harsh Vardhan broke no new ground when proposed on June 16, 2019 to build a virology laboratory in Muzaffarpur, the Bihar district that has been the hotbead for Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES). Vardhan promised the same in 2014, but there's hardly anything to show for his promise on the ground.

Meanwhile, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in Atlanta, United States; New Delhi-based National Centre for Disease Control and Pune’s National Institute of Virology (NIV) have come up different causes of the syndrome, after studying samples. However, there has been no consensus on any of these findings yet.

A section of medical practitioners believe a laboratory in Muzaffarpur is needed; and the governments at the Centre as well as the state should have it out. “Be it CDC or NCDC or NIV, they work on ad-hoc basis on AES. They can’t work round the year and round the clock on it as they have other subjects to work upon,” said Harihar Dikshit, vice-president of the Bihar chapter of Indian Medical Association.

“Five years is a long time. We could have used that time to at least work in the direction if finding a cause. Unfortunately, nothing has taken off till date. While the state health department and the Centre devoted their energy in combating the fever, hardly any attention was paid to augment a research on the cause of AES,” said an expert on condition of anonymity.

“A lab at the local level would have worked round the clock to find out the cause of the syndrome. Also, the wisdom of doctors in Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH), who  have spent their lives treating children suffering from AES and repeatedly deny that litchi is the main culprit, would have come handy had there been a lab in Muzaffarpur,” he added.

And now, when AES has already killed more than 100 children, even the state government has woken up. The Bihar government on June 17 decided to make Patna-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (IGIMS) a nodal centre for research on the cause.

“We have been given this responsibility by the health department. I will soon be sending a formal proposal to the department,” said SK Shahi, head of microbiology department of IGIMS.

“We don’t require any special infrastructure as we already have a microbiology lab. We will just need the government’s cooperation in collecting samples before the onset of monsoon. We will freeze those samples and before the next outbreak, if not the exact cause, we would at least be able to tell the government as to what the line of research is and what can be the probable line of treatment,” he added.

When asked what exactly his team will try to explore, he said, “From urine sampling to study of cerebrospinal fluid to genetic study, we would do everything. We still don’t know clearly whether it is virus infection or toxin or malnutrition. We will take all the research that has happened forward. The fact that we are situated in Bihar would serve as an advantage.”

He added that this lab would be different from the proposed virology one in Muzaffarpur.

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