In Muzaffarpur, AES is a grim reaper that stalks poor children -Ayush Tiwari
Affected families have much in common: low social status, low income, poor access to healthcare, and the non-existent reach of government schemes
The countryside in Bihar’s north-western region of Tirhut is in full bloom at this time of the year. One is constantly in the vicinity of mango trees and litchi orchards and a good portion of agricultural land seems fallow. The sun is excessively punishing but it does little to stop life here—men are usually away at work, women adorned in colourful saris assemble outside houses and giggle, bare-chested village elders camp on and around a charpai to talk politics as grubby children play.
But the anxiety is palpable.
A mysterious malady has gripped Tirhut. Almost every village houses a family mourning the loss of a child to chamki bukhaar, or Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES). Biharis and their annual encounter with the syndrome—whether in person or in print—has turned it into both a verb and a noun in the local tongue: to be afflicted by it is called chamkiana, a reference to the flashes (chamak) that affected kids claim they see when the sickness latches on to them.
The before and after story of every victim is surprisingly similar. The child plays in and around the village all day. Between 8 or 9 pm, he has dinner and goes to sleep. Around dawn, he begins twitching violently, fists clenched, head shaking and teeth grinding. The worried parents arrange transport and head to the nearest doctor. Sometimes the child dies on the way; at other times, he reaches the hospital but the treatment does not save him.
The families too have identical profiles: lower caste, poverty-stricken, landless, illiterate, living in kacha houses, and with kids that are half-clad and malnourished. The fathers are either peasants or labourers. The children do not go to school.
By the time Newslaundry met almost a dozen affected families across villages in Muzaffarpur and Vaishali, it became clear that AES is as much a socio-economic disorder as a neurological one.
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