NEW DELHI —
A 15-year-old schoolgirl in northern India has launched a charity to provide oxygen to impoverished patients after 63 people, nearly half of them children, died due to a lack of oxygen at the main government hospital in her home town.
The patients died from encephalitis, a disease which causes brain inflammation, after the hospital in Gorakhpur ran out of oxygen due to unpaid bills, triggering outrage over India's poorly managed state-run healthcare system.
"This tragedy was something that could have been prevented," said teenager Khushi Chandra, who set up Oxygen Gorakhpur, to raise funds for oxygen in hospitals.
"This is very personal for me as it happened right at my doorstep... No child can be denied the right to life, and in this case the right to breathe," she said in a statement.
"As an accountable citizen of my city and my country, I feel responsible towards ensuring such tragedies do not happen again," she added.
Acute Encephalitis Syndrome and Japanese Encephalitis outbreaks are common in India, especially during the monsoon season, and claim hundreds of lives.
Often known as "brain fever," encephalitis causes high fever, vomiting and, in severe cases, seizures, paralysis and coma. Infants and elderly people are particularly vulnerable.
Outbreaks of the virus tend to occur in poor, flood-hit areas such as Gorakhpur, where monsoons leave pools of stagnant water, allowing mosquitoes to breed and infect villagers.
Television pictures in mid-August — which showed parents holding the bodies of infants and saying they died because they did not have oxygen — led to widespread criticism of authorities in Uttar Pradesh state, where Gorakhpur is located.
The state, which is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, has fired the head of the hospital, as well as the head of the pediatrics department.
But the sacked hospital chief says he had repeatedly written to the administration to release funds to pay oxygen suppliers.
Government expenditure on public health is about one percent of GDP, among the world's lowest. In recent years, Modi's government has increased health spending and vowed to make healthcare more affordable.
But Chandra said Indians should help under-resourced hospitals provide basics like oxygen to prevent needless deaths.
"I seek support from other like-minded citizens to join hands to ensure that oxygen never runs out in our hospitals," she said.