Beyond a point, showing little children die is not what a channel would want to do. It is not an issue that would grab TRPs.

Features Thursday, July 10, 2014 - 05:30
Monalisa Das| June 11, 2014| 11.39 am IST Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been struck by the outbreak of encephalitis yet again this year. Over hundred children are undergoing treatment at various state hospitals and more than 30 have succumbed to the disease till now. Encephalitis is the acute inflammation of the brain that commonly results from a viral infection or when the immune system mistakenly attacks the brain tissue. The disease affects the central nervous system. Children are more susceptible to contracting the infection, it kills hundreds of children year after year in India. So why does a killer disease that has claimed lives of over 50,000 children over the last three decades, get such limited and often skewed coverage from the media? “The media’s coverage of encephalitis in the country is not sustained”, says Shreya Dhoundial, a senior journalist working with CNN IBN who has extensively reported on the issue for almost six years now. Talking to The News Minute, Dhoundial explains how encephalitis, a disease that is cent percent preventable, recurs each year claiming numerous lives. “It is a collective social, political, and administrative failure”, she states. How else can one explain the similar scenario that we get to see every year and the simultaneous lack of awareness in people? Considering the Indian media doesn't leave any opportunity to talk about almost every issue under the sun, when it comes to encephalitis and other health issues, why has it opted for very limited coverage? This, in spite of the availability of concrete reports and evidence. Dhoundial is of the opinion that “beyond a point, showing little children die is not what a channel would want to do. It is not an issue that would grab TRPs. Also, there is the fatigue factor. You have seen it happening each year, over and over again, that it doesn’t bother you anymore”. The government is also to be held responsible, for its apathetic attitude towards the disease and its repetitive failure in being able to bring down the mortality rate. Although money has been allotted several times towards controlling and preventing the disease, no one knows whether it has reached its right destination or not. Referring to a time when encephalitis had gripped Uttar Pradesh some years ago, Dhoundial reminiscences how Mayawati was busy inaugurating an elephant park which was made for around Rs 650 crores. The sense of timing and the sheer amount of money put into the park was appalling. “The bottom line is that no one cares. Why should they? After all it is a poor man’s disease. It is not a city disease and it doesn’t affect the rich”, she says. If it had happened in Delhi, Kolkata or any other big city, the coverage definitely would have been more. Majority of the families affected by encephalitis hail from low-income groups and live in rural pockets across the states, where pure drinking water is considered a luxury. There is no proper sanitation or nutrition available to them, which increases their risk of getting infected. Dhoundial also points out that what makes encephalitis a more serious issue is that how almost 30% of the children who survive encephalitis often end up with some sort of mental or physical disorders. And yet the media chooses to remain silent. Dr RN Singh, a physician and an activist from Gorakhpur, UP, has been working towards controlling and reducing the deaths from encephalitis in the state for close to 10 years now. He explains how the official number of deaths caused by encephalitis is just “the tip of the ice berg”. Only those deaths occurring in government hospitals are taken into account. However, there are a huge number of children who die in private nursing homes and primary health centres in remote villages, which are not recorded. Echoing Dr Sinha, Doundial says that “the media is constantly under reporting”. However, controlling encephalitis is not that mammoth a task, feels Dr Sinha. The Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) is a severe form of encephalitis. The two most common categories under it are the Viral Encephalistis (VE) and Japanese Encephalitis (JE)-caused by mosquitoes and is water borne. The entro-viral encephalitis is of the most fatal kind and is the cause of majority of deaths in the state today. JE related deaths were also common until a few years ago. But according to Dr Singh, the cases of JE have dropped down significantly in Gorakhpur after they successfully launched a campaign on eradicating Japanese encephalitis in the area. Dr Singh doesn't seem have many expectations from the government. The solution to encephalitis, he says, doesn't lie in the treatment. In this case prevention is definitely better than cure. In spite of several meetings and launching schemes, the government doesn’t seem to have raised any awareness. “There is no political will to solve the problem”, he states. A National Encephalitis Eradication Programme could be the need of the hour. The media could help raise awareness by reporting intensively on the disease, just like it had done for polio, feels Dr Singh. Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan has been making all the right noises on encephalitis. This is also perhaps the best time for media to question itself- Should reporting depend on what audiences would like to know or not? Does limited coverage clear us off our duties? History is replete with instances that prove the media has the power not just to raise awareness on issues but also act as a push to the government to take concrete steps. Then what are we waiting for?