Child deaths at Indian hospital reach 60

A woman carries a child at the Baba Raghav Das Hospital in Gorakhpur, India, where 60 children have died in the past week. (EPA Photo)

MUMBAI: Sixty children have died at a hospital in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh this week, with some reports blaming many of the deaths on a lack of oxygen supplies arsing from a dispute over payments to the supplier.

The BRD Medical College said 34 were babies had died in the neo-natal intensive care unit, while 12 had died because of encephalitis, outbreaks of which are common during the monsoon season. The rest died of other unspecified causes.

Local media reports have said some of the deaths resulted from an oxygen shortage after a private supplier withdrew its equipment over unpaid hospital dues.

District Magistrate Rajiv Rautela denied that the lack of oxygen had caused the deaths, saying the children died of natural causes.

Parents said oxygen supplies to the ward ran out on Thursday night and that patients' families were given self-inflating bags to help the children breathe.

Rautela said on Saturday that the hospital owed 6.8 million rupees ($106,000) to the company that supplies the oxygen.

Dr RS Shukla, the chief medical superintendent at BRD Medical, denied the deaths had been caused by a lack of oxygen supplies when asked by Reuters.

The hospital, in a statement, said there had been a "drop in pressure in the supply of liquid oxygen" on Thursday, but added that cylinders were procured from other suppliers. It did not specify whether that had resulted in any deaths.

The breakdown of the death toll provided by the hospital showed a spike on Thursday, with 23 fatalities, including 14 babies in the neo-natal unit.

The Uttar Pradesh and federal governments are investigating the matter, officials said. A tweet from the Prime Minister's Office said Narendra Modi was constantly monitoring the situation.

The deaths have sparked a political firestorm as opposition politicians sought to pin the blame on Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the state.

The hospital is located in Gorakhpur district, which is represented by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu hardliner who was appointed to head the state this year.

"The current government is responsible for the deaths of children in Gorakhpur due to the lack of oxygen. Strict action should be taken," tweeted former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.

State government officials in TV appearances chastised opposition leaders for seeking to politicise the issue.

Outbreaks of encephalitis are common every year in India, claiming hundreds of lives, especially during the monsoon season. The disease is most often caused by contaminated food or water, mosquito bites, or through breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected person.

India spends about one percent of its GDP on public health, among the lowest in the world. Successive governments have faced criticism for not reforming the overburdened public health system which is still plagued with shortage of doctors and dilapidated infrastructure.

Modi's government has in recent years increased health spending and vowed to make healthcare more affordable.

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