40-year-old Venkatesan looks agitated as he faces the camera at the Naykampatti village in Salem district. He has lost his three-year-old child Illakiya to illness only a day back and remains in the dark about the exact reason for her demise.
"They initially told us it was dengue. But then after that they refused to confirm what the problem was. We still don't know what happened," he tells news reporters, helplessly.
Venkatesan had admitted his daughter at Salem Government Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College and Hospital, three days prior to her death. And when TNM contacted the Dean of the hospital, the response was abrupt.
"Yes, she passed away and it was due to viral fever," says the Dean Kanakaraj. But when we probed further, this evasive reply emerged, "We consider dengue when cases like this come in. But this is still a viral fever like chikungunya or malaria. I am not saying that it is not dengue but is has not been proven to be. So we have listed the reason as viral fever."
Three girl children between the ages of three and ten died at this hospital on Thursday alone. While two of them died due to 'viral fever', the other child passed away due to 'viral hepatitis', according to the hospital. They were from different parts of Salem district including Naykanpatty, Koothupatty and Omalur.
It is public knowledge that Tamil Nadu is grappling with a dengue crisis and while the Public Health Department is on a war footing, the districts seem to have not got the memo. 10,392 cases of dengue and 75 fever deaths have been reported in Tamil Nadu and only 27 of these are reportedly linked to dengue. Other cases where patients have died have been listed as multiple organ failure and viral fever.
But the Director of Public Health, Dr. Kolandaisamy admitted to TNM that such diagnosis does not reveal the full picture. "See, there are different kinds of viruses currently doing the rounds that could cause fever. But whatever it is, you can't possibly die at such a young age of just fever and other than dengue, the other viruses are easily treatable," he says. "Chances are that it was dengue and the hospital is not diagnosing it as such," he adds.
So is the government trying to hide numbers?
"The state government is on a war footing. We are doing all that we can but maybe the districts are unable to diagnose it," says the Director. "We have roped in the Commissioner of Revenue Administration and he is directly overseeing the containment efforts. Even today there was a review meeting held with all Collectors. We are all on board now," he promises.
But back in Salem, residents are not confident about a change on ground.
"It has been raining almost everyday here," says noted activist Piyush Manush. "The storm water drains are clogged with filth including plastic, waste from homes and thermocol. This is leading to water stagnation everywhere and unless the government realises that the lack of preparation for monsoons and rise in dengue cases are related, nothing will change," he adds.