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SLEEPING SICKNESS

Where have all the pigs gone? But this absurd lament for all the pigs being lifted out of their homes in various parts of Calcutta and Howrah and being transported hurriedly away to contain the spread of Japanese encephalitis would be considered flighty against the background of continuing deaths. A mosquito-borne disease of which pigs are often the host, Japanese encephalitis, together with acute encephalitis syndrome, have killed, reportedly, almost 570 people across India this year. These two diseases kill numbers of people each year during the monsoons, when mosquitoes breed. This time, however, not only are the numbers alarming, but the spread is frightening too. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were always vulnerable to these two diseases; this year Assam has lost 88 people to Japanese encephalitis that has affected 470, and 207 people to acute encephalitis syndrome that has affected 1,257, while in West Bengal 113 people had succumbed to Japanese encephalitis alone by July 25. Arunachal Pradesh, too, is suddenly battling the encroachment of the disease on a big scale while Meghalaya has started taking preventive measures.

That is the crux. What Meghalaya is doing West Bengal has failed to do although there were ample warning signs earlier in the year. It is a little late to be parcelling out blame after so many deaths in the north of the state. Lack of accountability and an imperturbably laid-back attitude are too ingrained in the work culture of Bengal for avoidable deaths, even of children, to make a difference. Else the fever clinics for the disease would not remain closed when most needed. What is happening in Bengal is ad hoc as much political damage control as disease control and prevention. The frenzied uprooting of pigs is just one, perhaps deliberately dramatic, facet of this, and therefore unavoidably absurd. Pigs may be the new dimension this time, because they are hosts to the virus so is poultry, by the way but there is nothing new in mosquito-borne diseases in West Bengal. Malaria, cerebral malaria and dengue have caused numberless deaths in the region since time immemorial. So why have mosquitoes been allowed to breed at all? Japanese encephalitis is just one more potentially fatal disease that mosquitoes carry. The issue here is not the disease, but the casual irresponsibility of the administration as regards public health.