Indian hospital chief accused in oxygen crisis

A woman looks into the intensive care unit (ICU) at the Baba Raghav Das hospital in the Gorakhpur district, India. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - The chief of the Indian medical college where dozens of sick children died this month after the oxygen supply ran out has been arrested on charges of culpable homicide, Indian authorities have said.

Dr Rajiv Mishra, who had been chief of Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur until he was recently suspended, was arrested Tuesday along with his wife. On Wednesday, Indian officials disclosed that 386 children had died this month at that hospital, slightly above average.

Many people in India were outraged by the children's deaths after it emerged that the hospital had failed to pay its bills to an oxygen supplier. Despite repeated warnings from technicians within the hospital and from the oxygen supply company, the oxygen supply was allowed to dwindle to nothing.

Hundreds of children were in the hospital at the time, many in critical condition and on ventilators, and more than 60 died over a period of days in mid-August as the hospital's oxygen supplies were depleted.

Parents said they were given plastic hand-operated resuscitators to keep their children alive, and they blamed the hospital for their deaths.

High-ranking government officials insisted that the hospital's central oxygen supply system was empty for only two hours, and that the shortage was not a factor in the deaths. Several doctors at the hospital, though, said some of the children probably did die from the shortage.

"Dr Mishra is under police custody for interrogation, and we are trying to arrest others," said Satyarth Anirudha Pankaj, police chief of Gorakhpur, during a telephone interview Wednesday evening.

In addition to culpable homicide, Mishra was charged with cheating, criminal conspiracy and corruption by a government servant.

Mishra's wife, Dr Pornima Shukla, a homeopathy doctor at another government hospital, was accused of acting as a conduit for bribes.

The police said they planned to arrest more people in connection with the oxygen shortage, including hospital account clerks, doctors and executives of the oxygen supply company.

Officials said that the children who died in August did so from a variety of ailments, particularly mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis, which hits the area hard every year during the rainy season.

Many children arrive at the hospital near death. Doctors said it was not unusual for more than 300 children to die at the hospital during August. Last August it was 364.

The Baba Raghav Das college serves a huge area in India's biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, where the government health facilities are widely regarded as corrupt and mismanaged.

The hospital provides treatment to more than 20 neighbouring districts, some as far as 200 miles (322 km) away, said Dr K.P. Kushwaha, a former administrator, in an interview this month.

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