At least 60 children have died at a hospital in northern India over the past week amid an outbreak of encephalitis and disputed reports of disrupted supplies.
Those who died at the Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical College in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh ranged from babies to 12-year-olds.
At least a dozen children are said to have died from encephalitis – a disease causing inflammation of the brain, common during India’s monsoon season and which is often caused by contaminated food, water or mosquito bites. The hospital has reportedly treated nearly 370 cases in the past two months, of which 129 have resulted in deaths.
The children’s deaths have sparked a political row, with the hospital authorities accused of negligence. Parents claimed the oxygen supply to the children’s ward ran out on Thursday night and that relatives were given self-inflating bags to help the children breathe.
There have been reports of an oxygen shortage after a supplier withdrew equipment in a dispute over payments, and that the authorities had been warned.
However, a district magistrate said on Saturday that the children’s deaths were due to natural causes and denied that a lack of oxygen led to their deaths.
The Uttar Pradesh government has ordered an investigation and has vowed that stringent action will be taken against those found guilty over the deaths.
The state’s top health official admitted there had been a problem in the pipeline supplying oxygen, but added that the hospital managed the situation via its plentiful supply of oxygen cylinders.
Spending on public health in India, relative to the country’s GDP, is among the lowest in the world. Prime Minister Narandra Modi has increased spending in recent years and vowed to make healthcare more affordable.