GORAKHPUR, INDIA - Indian health authorities on Monday delivered oxygen to a public hospital where 63 people have died of encephalitis in recent days, nearly half of them children, as it ran out of medical supplies because of unpaid bills, triggering public outrage.
The deaths of the children have again exposed India's underfunded and poorly managed public healthcare despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi government's vows to revamp the system.
Hundreds of people die each year in India of encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease common during the monsoon season, and no medical official directly linked the recent deaths to a lack of oxygen.
But complaints that the hospital in the eastern city of Gorakhpur did not have enough supplies has stoked anger against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party which governs Uttar Pradesh state.
"We now have adequate supplies of oxygen cylinders, there was a shortage last week... but I am not in a position to say whether they were the cause behind the deaths," R.K. Sahai, a senior medical officer in the hospital, said.
Television images of parents emerging from the hospital carrying the bodies of infants and alleging they died because there they didn't get oxygen have led to a firestorm of criticism of chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed Hindu hardliner who took office earlier this year.
Bipin Singh said his six-year-old daughter died on Thursday because of lack of oxygen and he had seen six other children die for the same reason.
"My daughter and other children were unable to breathe. We kept telling the nurses that they should call the doctors. The doctors said they have ordered for oxygen cylinders but we never saw them being used."
Bahadur Nishad, who lost a four-year-old son suffering from encephalitis, said he was ready to pay for the oxygen cylinders himself.
“They told me there was a shortage of cylinders," he said and turned his wrath on chief minister Yogi Adityanath whose electoral constituency is Gorakhpur.
Other parents spoke of desperately trying to arrange basic materials such as cotton gauze, glucose injections and blood supplies as their children struggled for life in the wards.
Patients continued to stream into the hospital over the weekend. Some 450 patients suffering from encephalitis were admitted on Saturday alone, of whom 200 were children under 12, hospital records showed.
Many were being treated on the floor and near toilets due to the shortage of beds.
Government expenditure on public health is about one percent of GDP, among the worlds lowest. In recent years, Modi's government has increased health spending and vowed to make healthcare more affordable.
The Uttar Pradesh government fired the head of the hospital as well as the doctor who headed the pediatrics department to head off criticism from the opposition.
But Rajeev Misra, the sacked chief of the hospital, told reporters he had repeatedly written to the state administration to release funds to pay suppliers.
Sahai, the medical officer at the hospital, said authorities were investigating the reasons for the shortage of oxygen cylinders.