LUCKNOW • At least 64 children have died at a hospital in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh last week, prompting local media to blame the fatalities on a lack of oxygen supplies.
The BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur district specified that 34 were babies who died at the neo-natal intensive care unit, while 12 died because of encephalitis. The rest died of unspecified causes.
The dead children ranged from babies to 12-year-olds.
Multiple local media reports said the children died after the company that was supplying oxygen stopped the service, apparently over non-payment of dues amounting to over US$50,000 (S$68,000).
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Chief medical superintendent Dr R. S. Shukla denied accusations that the deaths were due to an oxygen shortage.
Speaking to Agence France- Presse earlier yesterday, Gorakhpur's divisional commissioner Anil Kumar said: "We have launched an inquiry and a preliminary report should be out today. Yes, 60 patients have died at the hospital in the last five days but we don't think it's linked to reports of oxygen shortage."
An earlier statement issued by the office of state chief minister Yogi Adityanath, which ordered the inquiry, said that all the deaths had occurred at the hospital's paediatric ward over a five-day period starting last Monday. Twenty-three children died last Thursday when, according to the statement, "the pressure of the liquid oxygen supply became low and 52 reserve oxygen cylinders were pressed into service". It did not specify whether that had resulted in any deaths.
Uttar Pradesh, India's most populated state, is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party. Opposition politicians have seized on the deaths, calling the government insensitive. "The state government is responsible for the deaths," said Mr Raj Babbar, a leading opposition figure. "How can there be shortage of oxygen?"
Other opposition leaders demanded that the government pay US$30,000 in compensation to each family.
Next week is India's 70th anniversary of independence from Britain.
"This is not a tragedy. It's a massacre," tweeted Mr Kailash Satyarthi, a children's rights advocate and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. "Is this what 70 years of freedom means for our children?"
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.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES