A man sits inside an ambulance next to his relative, who is
suspected to be suffering from encephalitis, outside a
hospital in Jalpaiguri district of the eastern Indian state
of West Bengal. Photo by Reuters
Almost 570 people in India have died after contracting
encephalitis, commonly known as "brain fever", health
authorities say, warning the death toll may rise with more
people still at risk.
Outbreaks of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome and Japanese
Encephalitis are common every year in India, especially
during the monsoon season, and claim hundreds of lives.
But this year, major outbreaks - usually most prevalent in
the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar - have spread
to regions such as West Bengal and Assam further east and
north - killing 568 people.
In West Bengal, where at least 111 people have died from both
strains, a senior health official said authorities were
taking emergency steps to contain the outbreak.
"We have sounded an alert in seven districts and cancelled
the leave of all health department officials," West Bengal's
Health Services Director B.R. Satpathy told the Thomson
The health department has set up clinics across affected
areas and is trying to prevent breeding of mosquitoes by
fogging, especially around pig farms, where there is a high
risk of contracting the virus.
Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain, caused by any
one of a number of viruses, says the World Health
Organisation. Symptoms include high fever, vomiting and, in
severe cases, seizures, paralysis and coma. Infants and
elderly people are particularly vulnerable.
It is most often caused by eating or drinking contaminated
food or water, from mosquito or other insect bites, or
through breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected
Outbreaks of the virus tend to occur in poor, flood-hit
areas, where monsoons have left pools of stagnant water,
allowing mosquitoes to breed and infect villagers.
Floods also lead to the contamination of clean water sources
such as wells, leaving many people with no option but to use
the same dirty water for both drinking and sanitation.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said last month that he was
distressed at the "runaway conquest of encephalitis" and
ordered the vaccination of all children in vulnerable states
and the provision of dedicated hospital beds.
In 2012, the government launched a national programme to
prevent and control the virus, including expanded
vaccinations, strengthened surveillance and improved access
to safe drinking water and sanitation.
There were 1273 deaths due to encephalitis in 2013 compared
to 440 deaths from malaria and 193 from dengue, according to