| A sample 2-ml spoon (right), which was replaced by a 5-ml cup during the botched campaign
Guwahati, Sept. 3: Gauhati High Court today held the Tarun Gogoi government responsible for the botched Unicef-sponsored pulse vitamin-A campaign in November 2001 and asked it to pay additional compensation of Rs 20,000 each to the families of the children who died on being administered the dose.
Meant to strengthen the immune system, the pulse vitamin-A drops turned lethal, killing 23 children and rendering thousands ill. Nearly 25 lakh of the targeted 31 lakh children were administered the administered on November 11 that year.
Health minister Bhumidhar Barman had cited “overdose” of the concentrated vitamin A solution as the reason for the fiasco. He said healthcare workers were probably misled by the change in the system of administering the vitamin with 5ml cups instead of the 2ml spoons used in earlier campaigns.
In a judgment running into 12 pages, the court held health department officials guilty of negligence and said the government could not shirk its responsibility of adequately compensating the families of the children who died on being administered vitamin-A.
The division bench of Chief Justice P.P. Naolekar and Justice A.H. Saikia asked the government to adopt effective methods to distinguish sick children from healthy ones before administering pulse vitamin-A in future.
The judgment was on a PIL by two high court lawyers, Bijan Kumar Mahajan and Rajendra Kumar Pradhan. They had sought an independent inquiry into the botched campaign and adequate compensation to the families of the victims.
“Considering the factor of death of innocent children, we feel that the amount of compensation already paid as exemplary damages for the death of small children is not adequate and, therefore, we direct that an additional amount of Rs 20,000 be paid to families of the children who had died after administration of the pulse vitamin-A,” the judgment said.
The court asked the Gogoi government to pay additional compensation to each of these families within a month. The victim’s families were paid a paltry Rs 5,000 each after the incident.
The judges observed that health department officials and healthcare workers involved in the pulse vitamin-A campaign overlooked the fact that the medicine can be counter-productive when administered to children who are ill.
“The state government had not provided any guidelines to the health workers and the officials of health department regarding the administration of doses, and whether such doses can be administered to sick children. Under the circumstances, we are of the view that there is some amount of negligence on the part of the officials of health department in carrying out the programme.”
In an interim order on June 5 last year, the court directed the director-general of police to institute an inquiry by an officer not below the rank of deputy inspector-general of police. The official accordingly asked inspector-general of police (CID) S.P. Kar to conduct the probe. He submitted his report on October 25.
A harried government simultaneously instituted an inquiry by the joint secretary of health and the director of health services. The Assam Human Rights Commission, too, conducted a probe. It said the new system of administering the vitamin with 5-ml cups and lack of training probably led healthcare workers to give an overdose.
Suspected cases of vitamin overdose were reported from 12 districts, with Nagaon, Cachar and Karimganj topping the list. Samples of vitamin-A, manufactured by Nicholas Pharmaceuticals and slated for expiry this year, were sent to Calcutta for laboratory tests.
According to a Unicef document, vitamin-A can bring about a one-fourth drop in the child mortality rate by reducing the risk of death from measles and diarrhoea.
A 1999 survey by the Indian Council of Medical Research revealed that only 0.3 per cent children in the “most impoverished” districts of Dibrugarh and Nagaon had vitamin-A deficiency.